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Senegalese press: oppressed or out of control?

A proliferation of media outlets has even journalists questioning the quality of content.

A vendor sets up his newsstand in Dakar. The city has as many as 20 daily newspapers, and displaying them all can be a challenge, he said. (Anne Look / GlobalPost)

DAKAR, Senegal — This week President Abdoulaye Wade pardoned Senegalese journalist El-Malick Seck and reaffirmed promises to decriminalize press offenses.

Seck's three-year prison sentence sparked widespread protests from international watchdog groups, such as the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders, but many Senegalese journalists had a different reaction: The media isn’t oppressed, it’s out of control.

“People think that in Senegal, we’re on the point of killing a journalist, but that’s really an exaggerated image. We continue to have freedom of expression,” said Diatou Cisse Badiane, head of Senegal’s press union, known by its French acronym, Synpics.

“Even when it comes to that freedom, you sometimes also have to acknowledge a certain waywardness or irresponsibility on the part of the press,” she said.

Seck, editor-in-chief of the Dakar-based newspaper 24 Heures Chrono, was arrested in August after publishing a vaguely sourced article accusing Wade and his son of money laundering in the Ivory Coast. Seck was charged with disruption of public order, disseminating false news and insulting the head of state.

Threats to press freedom have certainly intensified since Wade — who makes no attempt to hide his disdain for the press — came to power in 2000.

Newsrooms have been raided. Two journalists were beaten up by the police while covering a World Cup qualifying match last June. Three radio stations were suspended during the local elections in March.

Yet, bring this up with Senegalese journalists and they’ll tell you that you also have to look at who’s getting in trouble. Seck isn’t a journalist, they say with a roll of the eyes. He’s just a guy who had a website and some money and opened a newspaper. And, unfortunately, he’s not alone.

Since the mid-1990s, newspapers and other media outlets have been sprouting like weeds in Senegal, overtaking the newsstands and strangling what many refer to as the legitimate news sources, Badiane said.

Dakar now has a dizzying number of radio stations, television stations, newspapers, and it’s not hard to get a job as a journalist or even to open your own publication.

“What’s happening now is that all the businessmen who want to make a profit, who want to apply pressure or exert influence, rent a little apartment, get two people and an old Pentium II computer, and they say it’s a media business,” Badiane said. “We have to do something. That can’t continue.”

Reporters are thrust on beats without any professional training in communications. Some don’t have a firm grasp of ethical standards or even the French language, which is used by most of the newspapers, Badiane said.

Those untrained journalists are willing to accept salaries as low as $100 per month as opposed to the $600 to $800 a month a more seasoned journalist would demand, Badiane said.

“There are a lot of people here who call themselves journalists, but who aren’t really journalists. They haven’t been trained. They aren’t working with trained editors,” said Abdou Latif Coulibaly, editor-in-chief of La Gazette and director of the Higher Institute of Information Sciences and Communication.