Senegal Campaign Media Battle Heats Up

With a little over one week before Senegal's presidential elections, candidates are working hard to win over voters. Though some have called into question the fairness of traditional media outlets, candidates are trying new technologies to connect with voters. Jordan Davis reports from VOA's Dakar bureau.

During the three weeks of official campaigning, evening programming on Senegal's state television channel, RTS, is dominated by montages of campaign rallies, and prepared statements from candidates. The idea is to give all 15 candidates equal airtime.

The media watchdog group, Reporters Without Borders has been monitoring how much airtime each candidate gets. In the first week of campaigning, it found incumbent President Abdoulaye Wade and his supporters appeared on television screens significantly more than any other candidate.

Reporters Without Borders' Africa director, Leonard Vincent, says much of the bias stems from news coverage of projects laid out by government ministers, often members of Mr. Wade's campaign team.

"When a minister comes out and says that, in one year, they will do this and that, that means this will be only possible, if Mr. Wade is elected," he said.  "So, this is why it is important to tell the Senegalese journalists, who work in the public media that it is very different what they [reporters] do now, and what they were doing one month ago."

Alioune Tine, who is with the Dakar-based human rights group known as RADDHO, says RTS and the country's broadcasting authority have actually been receptive to complaints of bias. Tine says he met with broadcasting authority representatives in recent days.

"I have seen that, for some candidates that got less time, there is a system of compensation. And, it is a very transparent process," he said.

Opposition parties have also complained that, in Dakar, they have been unable to get space on roadside billboards, because all of them were reserved by President Wade's campaign.

But a number of candidates in this election campaign are turning to less traditional ways of getting their messages out.

Cell phone text messaging is becoming a key strategy for a number of candidates, especially because of the country's sizable youth population.

Malik Diop is the youth coordinator for opposition candidate Moustapha Niasse.

Diop says, now, almost everyone has access to a cellular phone, and sending a text message is very inexpensive for a campaign. He says, the campaign sends text messages about the candidate to the country's youth, and asks them to pass it on to their friends.

Incumbent President Wade's victory in 2000 was largely attributed to him carrying the youth vote.

Campaign observers say nearly two million more people have registered to vote for this year's election than seven years ago.  Most of them are believed to be young, first-time voters.

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