/ 18 August 2008

Senegal newspaper raids deepen bitter media dispute

Attackers ransacked the offices of two independent Senegalese newspapers at the weekend, editors said on Monday, deepening a bitter power struggle between authorities and non-state media in the West African country.

Unidentified men destroyed writing and printing equipment at the headquarters of privately controlled papers L’As and 24 Heures Chrono, which have both been critical of government ministers, editors of the two papers said.

Tensions between President Abdoulaye Wade’s Cabinet and independent media have escalated in recent months, especially since police beat two radio reporters at a soccer match and many media outlets backed protests to put the officers on trial.

The tensions, and a parliamentary election last year that the main opposition boycotted in protest of what they say is Wade’s ”monarchy”, have tarnished Senegal’s reputation as a stable democracy and a favourite with foreign donors.

”These attacks have the backing of the authorities,” 24 Heures Chrono editor El Malick Seck said.

The newspaper accused Farba Senghor, Air Transport Minister and propaganda chief for Wade’s ruling Democratic Party (PDS), of being behind the raid on the office in a front page headline printed over a photo of the damaged office.

Senghor was unavailable for immediate comment. Police had launched an investigation, an Interior Ministry spokesperson said.

Critics accuse Wade of stifling opposition and political debate and are suspicious of the promotion of his son, Karim, to influential unelected roles such as organising the high-budget Organisation of the Islamic Conference summit last March.

They say Wade aims to position Karim to succeed his father, whose second and final elected term ends in 2012.

Senghor accused L’As and 24 Heures Chrono and two other papers on Friday of a ”relentless, orchestrated” campaign after a series of critical stories, some about his private life.

”There is no difference between verbal, written and physical violence. Press freedom does not give a journalist the right to repeatedly attack honest citizens, whatever their position, with microphone or pen and go unpunished,” he said in a statement.

”As a consequence, Minister Farba Senghor reserves the right to retaliate, and warns anybody who might be offended at his exercise of his legitimate right to defence.”

L’As editor-in-chief Cheikh Oumar Ndaw said: ”Three days after Farba’s statement we are attacked. Of course we made the link.”

In March police raided a private TV station that repeatedly screened footage of police with electric batons beating demonstrators during an illegal protest over high food prices.

Later, most independent media observed a one-day strike in protest at the beating by police of two sports reporters after a soccer match at the national stadium in June.

Senghor responded by instructing government ministries to block advertising in newspapers ”that spend their time attacking us”, urged public officials to check those newspapers were paying tax and told PDS supporters to cancel subscriptions. — Reuters