JOURNALISTS in Senegal say they have rarely experienced as much intimidation as they have since opposition leader Ousmane Sonko was detained for several days earlier this month, sparking unrest that claimed five lives.
Media rights groups have accused the government of clamping down on the press to quash the protests.
But journalists are also under fire from Sonko supporters, especially after interviews in which a masseuse accused him of rape.
One interviewer, Mamadou Cisse, has said he has received ‘insults and death threats from both Senegalese and European phone numbers… accusing us of being bought.’
Emotions have run high since the young masseuse, Adji Sarr, first lodged a complaint against Sonko in early February.
Sarr, in her early 20s, has asserted that Sonko, 46, forced her to sleep with him on several occasions and had threatened reprisals if she refused.
In one interview, she claimed that he had got her pregnant.
Sonko has admitted going to Sarr’s massage parlour in Dakar, saying he went there to relieve long-standing back pain, but denies Sarr’s accusations. He claims they are part of a ‘plot’ aimed at sidelining him from politics before the next presidential election in 2024.
The affair mixing sex, law and politics has inflamed minds at a time when many Senegalese are exasperated by restrictions imposed because of Covid.
‘Threats used to be subtler’
Sonko was held for five days, a detention that sparked unrest unseen for years in a country usually considered a beacon of stability in the volatile West African region.
Senegal’s current ranking is a respectable 47th place out of 180 countries scored for freedom of the press by media watchdog Reporters without Borders (RSF).
But the government has moved to restrain the press over its coverage of clashes between youths and police.
Senegal’s media watchdog imposed a three-day suspension on two private television stations for airing violent footage ‘on a loop.’
And a top Dakar official was caught on audio ordering police to use tear gas on journalists as well as protesters – ostensibly to ease traffic – who were accompanying Sonko as he headed to the courthouse on March 3 to hear the rape allegation.
En route, scuffles between his supporters and police broke out. Police then arrested Sonko for disturbing public order – but was then charged with rape.
He was released on March 8.
Social networks have reported suspected interference by the government, similar to that experienced in many countries during times of crisis.
Protesters have attacked the Dakar offices of the Groupe Futurs Medias (GFM), owned by the world-famous singer Youssou Ndour, which has a radio station and a daily newspaper, and the daily Le Soleil.
Both are considered close to the government.
Mamadou Diouf, a reporter for the news website Dakaractu, told AFP: ‘We have received a lot of death threats and insults on social media. They accuse us of being corrupt and of denying the theory of a setup’ targeting Sonko.
Dakaractu said it had stepped up security at its offices and stopped putting its reporters’ bylines on their stories, seeking to shield them from such attacks.
Press unions have said they will take legal action.
Intimidation by an opposition party or its supporters is ‘a first,’ according to Issa Sall, a top Senegalese journalalist. ‘Threats used to be subtler, or better, mere intellectual diatribes.’
Rights activist Alioune Tine said the affair has caused broader distress over politicisation of a woman’s body and the risk that a rape charge will not be properly investigated.
In such a toxic climate, many are reluctant to weigh in.
Sonko, visiting the GFM offices on Friday, said he rejected all forms of violence.
‘Press outlets cannot be our adversaries. I call on all Senegalese… to end all such practices in future, to allow (the press) to do its work freely,’ he said.