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Journalists, Rights Groups Question Senegal Leader's Commitment to Press Freedom


Journalists in Senegal and free press advocates have criticized President Abdoulaye Wade over his administration's treatment of the press. Brent Latham reports from our West Africa bureau in Dakar, the criticism comes in response to events surrounding Mr. Wade's appearance in front of a group of American reporters in Chicago.

Freedom of the press advocates and Senegalese journalists reacted sharply to statements made by Mr. Wade at a conference in the United States.

In Dakar, members of the local media expressed concern that appearances like this one in Chicago, during which Mr. Wade spoke about freedom of the press among other issues, divert attention away from a crack down on press freedom in Senegal.

Alassane Samba Diop, News Director for RFM radio in Dakar says while Mr. Wade travels abroad to speak on freedom of the press, his record on the issue in his own country needs improvement.

Diop says there has been a regression in press freedom during Mr. Wade's presidency, which began in 2000. He says Mr. Wade has set up his own state-run radio and newspaper, content for which is created by state information agencies, and not real journalists.

Mr. Wade spoke in Chicago in an address to the UNITY '08 Conference, a gathering bringing together minority journalists. The president's appearance was marred by an incident in which a man identified as an exiled Senegalese journalist interrupted his address.

Diop says opponents who spoke out against Wade at the conference were attacked by Mr. Wade's supporters, and then carried away by police.

Diop says the president's contempt for the press is evident in that he takes only government employed press along with him on trips.

That may be an indication that Mr. Wade's relations with the press, which were once excellent, have deteriorated, says Africa program coordinator for New York-based freedom of the press watchdog Committee to Protect Journalists, Tom Rhodes. He says Mr. Wade's record on freedom of the press could be improved.

"He is looked at as a leader in democracy and yet his press freedom record isn't up to snuff according to what you would expect," said Rhodes. "In fact I would say press freedom conditions have deteriorated under his administration."

Rhodes says in the last year five journalists have been physically assaulted by government police and three have received suspended prison sentences. He says Wade has failed thus far to follow through on promises to decriminalize Senegal's liable laws, which Rhodes calls the greatest obstacle to press freedom in Africa.

In a statement released by Senegal's Ministry of Information, Mr. Wade said he is "a man of the press." He said despite his problems with certain journalists, he has done a great deal during his presidency to help advance the cause of Senegalese media.

Mr. Wade says the press in Senegal is free, as demonstrated by a recent national strike staged by the media. Mr. Wade says since taking power, he has more than quadrupled government aid to the press, and supported programs to develop young journalists into professionals.

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