Press Freedom Advocates Protest Senegal President’s Presence
By EUNICE LEE and APRIL YEE
The UNITY News
More than 50 demonstrators are flying into Chicago from as far away as Paris and Dakar to protest a speech by Senegal President Abdoulaye Wade, organizers said Wednesday.
Critics say Wade, who will speak Friday at an event hosted by the National Association of Black Journalists, has suppressed press freedom in a country that enjoys one of the most vibrant media climates in Africa.
Wade will speak four days after Senegalese media outlets staged a press blackout to protest the beating of two reporters by Senegalese police. Web sites went black, and most newspapers did not publish.
NABJ President Barbara Ciara defended Wade’s invitation, saying “We invite people here so they can answer questions. We are journalists.
“The same would go for President Bush. …The same would go for Condoleezza Rice, figures that are not popular…,” Ciara said. “We want figures that are both popular and unpopular.”
To her point, when Wade was introduced at the UNITY opening ceremony, more than 40 Senegalese-Americans, many in “Wade in 2012” T-shirts, cheered him and waved flags.
NABJ also is hosting an invitation-only $500-per-person dinner with Wade for more than 70 people Friday. Ciara said the proceeds will help pay for NABJ to move into its new headquarters.
Though Senegal once had what the European press called one of the best records regarding a free press in Africa, Wade’s eight-year tenure has been marked by controversy over press freedom. Since Wade was re-elected in a landslide in February 2007, journalists’ complaints against Wade’s treatment of them have increased, even as he is embraced by the international community. Wade recently attended the G8 summit in Japan.
“Senegal has long been a model for press freedom prior to the arrival of Mr. Wade in office,” said Mohamed Keita, of the media watchdog group Committee to Protect Journalists.
In March, Senegalese police Tasered a TV journalist trying to interview an opposition leader at an anti-government demonstration. Last month, Senegalese police beat two journalists covering a soccer match. Newspapers called for Wade to condemn the incident, but Wade did not comment.
After the beatings, journalists banded to form another watchdog group called the Committee for the Protection and Defense of Journalists. And on Monday, Senegalese newspapers, radio stations and TV outlets participated in a media blackout. The Web sites for the daily newspapers Sud Quotidien and Le Quotidien featured a black background and red letters with the words: “DAY WITHOUT NEWS.”
“That’s like shutting your eyes and closing your mouth,” Ciara said. “To me, that’s totally not the approach of a free and open press, to shut yourself down.”
John Yearwood, the NABJ member who helped coordinate Wade’s visit, said, “There’s discontent against just about every leader in about every country. But this discontent does not mean that that president should not have been invited to speak.
“You have a country that clearly has work to do,” Yearwood said. “But what we are looking for from President Wade is a commitment to improve the sustainability of the press in his country.”
On Friday, Wade will answer questions from U.S. reporters after his speech about maintaining farmlands and providing more food to Senegalese residents. His critics, who include members of Senegal’s opposition political party and journalists, are not impressed.
Diop said the June beatings were the catalyst for recent outrage among Senegalese about the government’s treatment towards journalists.
“We fought for him to be elected, for him to be president, because we wanted there to be a free press, and that is what he is refusing,” Diop said. “We want to make American opinion leaders press the president to change the way he’s treating journalists.”
Ali Sarr, a Senegalese-American citizen who lives in the U.S. said, “I don’t think it’s appropriate for somebody who’s violating those (press) freedoms … I don’t think that kind of person should really be the person to make a presentation about freedom at all.”