November 15, 2007
His Excellency Abdoulaye Wade
President of the Republic of Senegal
c/o Embassy of the Republic of Senegal to the United States
2112 Wyoming Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20008
Via Facsimile: (202) 332-6315
Dear Mr. President,
As an independent, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending press freedom worldwide, we welcome the provisional release from prison of four Senegalese journalists arrested in recent weeks because of their critical stories. We believe that the government's continued use of criminal defamation and insult laws to jail and prosecute journalists undermines Senegal's democratic credentials. We are calling on you to use your influence to finally implement your 2004 pledge to repeal criminal penalties for press offenses, including defamation.
On November 8, presidential Chief of Staff Papa Samba Mboup announced on Radio Futurs Médias that you had given "firm instructions" to release from prison Editor-in-Chief Papa Moussa Guèye and political reporter Pape Moussa Doucar, both at the private daily L'Exclusif, Director Pape Amadou Gaye of the private daily Le Courrier du Jour, and publisher El Malick Seck of news Web Site Rewmi, according to news reports.
Police raided and shut down L'Exclusif the day the paper published a front-page story headlined "Late Outings at the Presidency: The Nocturnal Escapades of President Wade." Guèye was held for four weeks. Doucar, the author of the story, went into hiding but eventually was arrested, according to local journalists. Guèye was charged with offending the head of state, publishing false news, and endangering public security under Senegal's penal code, according to defense lawyer Cheikh Tidiane Faye.
Gaye was arrested on November 1 on similar charges, including inciting disobedience in the army, and his paper was sealed over an October 30 editorial titled "Social Tension: What About the Army in All This?" The story was critical of the government because of the rising cost of living and raised critical questions about the role of the army in the crisis, according to local journalists. Gaye could be sentenced up to 10 years in prison if convicted, according to defense lawyer Ciré Cledor Ly.
Seck was detained for 24 hours the same day Rewmi published a front-page story headlined "Souleymane Jules Diop Accuses Wade of Having Run Down the Country." Diop is an exiled critic of your government.
We ask that you use your influence to persuade the prosecutor to drop all charges against these journalists. They were imprisoned using several criminal statutes of Senegal's 1977 Penal Code. This code criminalizes "offending" the head of state (Article 254), defamation against courts (Article 259), officials (Article 260), and private citizens (Article 261) with a maximum penalty of two years in prison and fines of up to 1.5 million CFA francs (US$3,300). Journalists can also be imprisoned for up to three years for publishing "false news" (Article 255).
The Senegalese press union and civil society groups, with the help of legal experts and assistance from UNESCO, submitted a comprehensive proposal, including the decriminalization of defamation, to Information Minister Bacar Dia in December 2004. There has been little progress beyond the government's resistance to the scope of reform, according to CPJ research.
"We cannot let people write what they want with impunity," Mamadou Kassé, a former journalist who became a senior adviser to Dia, told CPJ this week via telephone. "Sometimes, prison can even protect a journalist from an individual carrying a gun and capable of killing him as we have seen in the Congo," he said.
The debate was "ongoing," Kassé said, adding that the government had prioritized journalism training.
We call on you now to fulfill your 2004 pledge to repeal criminal penalties for press offenses, including defamation.
Thank you for your attention to this important matter.