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African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights

Press Release by the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa on the Proposed Decriminalisation of Media Offences in Senegal

The Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa, Ms Pansy Tlakula, is concerned about reports of the violation of the right to Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in the Republic of Senegal.

She has been informed that on 3 June 2009, a Magistrate’s Court in Dakar found as “insulting to the President” and “likely to disturb public order” the June 2009 edition of L’Essentiel, a monthly news magazine, over a story headlined "Freemasonry: The Grand Lodge of France Conquers Senegal", "Nine years after the power change, the state is exploding, the Mourides are in control and Touba is suffering".

She is concerned that according to the information she received, following the interrogation of Mr Mustapha Sow, Managing Editor of L’Essential by the Criminal Investigations Department on 27 May 2009 and an Order by the Police Commissioner, that further publication of the magazine be halted, the Magistrate’s Court ordered the seizure and suspended distribution of the magazine, pursuant to Article 820-1 of the Rules of Civil Procedure, which authorises the suspension of any publication liable to “disturb public peace”.

The Special Rapporteur is also concerned about reports on 16 June 2009, two journalists, Mr Samba Diarra, Managing Editor and Ms Seye Diop, reporter at the independent newspaper Week-End, were convicted by a Magistrates Court and sentenced to three months imprisonment and a fine of 10 Million Francs each, for defamation. According to reports, this conviction was in relation to an article in the newspaper by Ms Diop titled “The underhand dealings of Aida Mbodji”, which accused Ms Aida Mbodji, member of the ruling party, of being a dishonest politician.

The Special Rapporteur, is concerned that if indeed these reports are accurate, the Government of the Republic of Senegal would be failing in its obligations to uphold the right to Freedom of Expression as guaranteed by Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (the African Charter) and the provisions of Principles XII of the Declaration which interalia requires that “no one shall be found liable for true statements, opinions or statements regarding public figures which it was reasonable to make in the circumstances” and that “public figures shall be required to tolerate a greater degree of criticism”. Such a state of affairs will also be contrary to Principle XIII (2) of the Declaration which prohibits restrictions on freedom of expression on public order grounds, unless there is a real risk of harm to a legitimate interest and the there is a close causal link between the risk of harm and the expression.

The Special Rapporteur reiterates her appeal to States Parties in her Activity Report presented to the 45th Ordinary Session of the African Commission in May 2009, as in previous ones, to bring their laws in line with Freedom of Expression standards in general and in particular, the Declaration, by repealing all criminal defamation laws and amending any existing defamation laws in conformity with Principle XII of the Declaration.

In this regard, she welcomes reports she has received, that in March 2009, President Abdoulaye Wade, announced plans by his Government to amend existing media legislation so as to decriminalise press offences. If implemented, such amendment would be a laudable step towards the fulfillment of Article 1 of the African Charter by the Republic of Senegal, and further evidence of its commitment to democratic principles and its determination to ensure that the right to Freedom of Expression and Access to Information is a reality for its citizenry.

The Special Rapporteur also welcomes reports of the 24 April 2009 release, by virtue of a Presidential pardon, of El Malick Seck, Editor of 24 Heures and Chrono, who had served eight months out of a three and a half year sentence for “offending the Head of State” and defaming a Government Minister.

She urges the Government of the Republic of Senegal to translate this commitment to the observance of regional standards on Freedom of Expression, which this gesture and the proposed decriminalisation of media offences signify, into concrete action, by ensuring that the necessary processes for the promised legal reform are initiated without any delay.