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Senegalese press: oppressed or out of control?

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

Trained journalists complain that their untrained colleagues' incompetence simply gives the government ammunition in its battle with the press.

Senegalese law defines a journalist simply as someone who earns the majority of his living from journalism. The press union is lobbying to require high school degrees and advanced training in accredited journalism schools before reporters get government-issued press cards.

“The government doesn’t like the press, but above all, it doesn’t like a competent press,” Coulibaly said, adding that the government may prefer to see the media devolve into incompetence and thereby undermine its own credibility.

There are now as many as 20 dailies in Dakar. The chaos and competition these and other media outlets bring to the marketplace is just as — if not more so — detrimental to the press as the repressive laws that can send journalists to jail, Coulibaly said.

Unlike western newspapers that thrive on advertising and subscriptions, Senegalese publications rely on individual sales. Competition at the news stands is fierce, and many have had to cut their cover prices — and their quality — in half, from the equivalent of 40 to 20 cents a paper, Coulibaly said.

It’s an oversaturated, unforgiving marketplace, and there isn’t enough advertising revenue to go around, making newspapers vulnerable to less overt reprisals, Coulibaly said. He gave the following example.

In its first issue, La Gazette ran an investigation on the health risks of new low-consumption light bulbs. Unhappy with the story, the minister of energy called the oil company that had advertised on the inside cover and the advertiser, who had previously agreed to four more issues, pulled his ad.

In newspapers' quests to sell, quality reporting has given way to shallow sensationalism, particularly when it comes to the covers and headlines. It’s what Coulibaly calls "blood, sex and fait divers," a French term that refers to random tidbits of news often as irrelevant as they are salacious.  

“They [newspapers] always need a scoop, something sensational, to sell papers, so they have a bit of a tendency to go overboard,” Coulibaly said.

The temptation to run eye-catching yet poorly researched stories can be hard for editors to resist, and some concede that there may, in fact, be some truth to government claims that half of what is printed in the independent press isn’t true.

A certain tension between the government and the press is healthy in a thriving democracy, but everybody has to be playing by the same rules, Coulibaly said. There is a difference between a free press and a wild press.

More GlobalPost dispatches on Senegal:

Senegal avoids human rights trial

Dakar hit by shortage of cooking gas


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