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Chicago Senegalese to protest president

Members of Chicago’s Senegalese community, joined by compatriots from across the country and Canada, will protest the appearance of President Abdoulaye Wade at the Unity Journalists of Color Conference at McCormick Place on Friday at 10 a.m.

The U.S. journalists are hosting Wade in the same week that newspapers and radio stations in Senegal held a one-day “news blackout” to protest violence against journalists.

A Unity press release hails Wade as “a leading spokesperson for democracy and development.” The organization includes the Asian American Journalists Association, the National Association of Black Journalists, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and the Native American Journalists Association. The conference is taking place July 23 to 27.

Wade is “breaking all the rules of democracy” — in particular by “brutalizing journalists” — and “degrading the economy with corruption,” said protest leader Badara Diakhate. “Senegal’s democracy was once the example for all of Africa, but now it is dying.”

Wade is trying to amend the constitution to allow his son to succeed him in office, Diakhate said.

Another issue is “total mismanagement of funds and resources,” Diakhate said — and President Wade’s penchant for “spending all his time traveling, while the people back home are suffering.”

While Wade travels by jet, thousands of Senegalese people are fleeing annually in small boats to Spain’s Canary Islands. “Senegalese children are dying in the middle of the ocean, looking for a brighter future and trying to escape harsh conditions,” Diakhate said.

Wade is expected to talk about developing alternative energy, but Diakhate considers that a diversion from “real problems, shortages of rice, water, fuel, everything. Senegal is moving backward right now, there’s a lot of pollution. There are children dying from polluted water.”

He said Senegalese are traveling from New York and California to join the protest, and he expects exiled journalist Souleymane Jule Diop from Canada. He also expects government supporters to counter-demonstrate.

Journalists beaten, jailed

Wade is “certainly not” a “symbol of press freedom for West Africa,” said Tom Rhodes of the Committee to Protect Journalists. “The situation with press freedom has worsened” since Wade’s election in 2000.

“This year alone five journalists have been assaulted, in most cases by police. Three journalists have been convicted of ‘criminal defamation,’” Rhodes said. Wade has not acted on campaign promises to repeal criminal defamation laws, he said.

In March police used a taser on a TV reporter as he attempted to interview an opposition leader during a demonstration by consumer advocacy groups who were protesting price hikes in food, fuel, and other basic stables, according to CPJ. Police confiscated copies of videotape of the incident, the group reported.

In May a newspaper director and editor-in-chief were prosecuted and convicted of criminal defamation after publishing a story reporting on a letter from an anonymous group of police alleging embezzlement and fraud in police management, according to CPJ.

In June Wade himself threatened a Senegalese newspaper editor in Rome during an international conference on world food, according to CPJ. “In this environment of threats and intimidation, we are very concerned that you made a personal threat against journalist Yakham Mbaye,” CPJ executive director Joel Simon wrote Wade. “We respectfully ask that you refrain from such behavior and instead use your influence to ensure that anyone who harasses and attacks journalists is brought to justice.”

On June 21 police punched, kicked and used tasers on two sports journalists who objected after being ordered to leave a designated area for press interviews following a World Cup qualifying match (see CPJ Letter). One of the journalists, Babacar Kambel Dieng, sports editor of Radio Futurs Medias, was hospitalized for 20 days, according to reports.

The International Federation of Journalists and Reporters Without Borders condemned the attack, and the Media Foundation for West Africa issued a statement “call[ing] on authorities to curtail the rising incidence of violence against journalists in Senegal.” CPJ wrote Wade “to express our alarm at an increasing pattern of physical attacks and threats against independent journalists in the line of duty in recent weeks and months.”

On July 8 a regional prosecutor opened a judicial inquiry into “assault, acts of torture, and obstructing the right to work” in the June 21 attack, but two days later Senegal’s Interior Ministry issued a statement absolving the police of blame, according to Agence France-Presse.

On Monday, July 21, Senegalese media held a one-day “news blackout” — suspending all broadcasts and publication — to protest the violence. The major radio stations and the country’s four largest daily newspapers participated, according to AFP.

Amnesty International noted in its 2007 report on Senegal that “threats to freedom of expression continued, targeting journalists and writers critical of the government,” and an opposition leader was jailed for insulting the president. According to the group’s 2008 report, “Supporters of opposition parties, human rights defenders and several journalists were arrested and harassed in an attempt to stifle freedom of expression and criticism of the president.”

The U.S. State Department’s 2007 human rights report on Senegal, released in March of this year, reports that “there were limits on freedom of speech, press, and assembly.” According to the report, “Security forces harassed and arrested journalists during the year” including “short-term detention of journalists for offending President Wade.”

The chair of the world affairs task force of the National Association of Black Journalists, Djibril Diallo, is a UN staff person from Senegal. He led an NABJ delegation including the group’s president, Barbara Ciarra, on a visit to Senegal last December, when they met with President Wade.

A Unity spokesperson was not available for comment.

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