Senegal: Freedom of speech record under fire

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Senegal:
Freedom of speech record under fire

Senegal, celebrated for being a bastion of peace and stability in a troubled region, is preparing for presidential elections in which 86 year old incumbent Abdoulaye Wade hopes to win a third term in office. The opposition say that Wade’s bid for re-election is unconstitutional and riots have already rocked the West African nation this year over Wade’s attempts to change the constitution.

By Rose Skelton, Freemuse


 

But Senegal’s once enviable freedom of expression record is also under threat. Senegal’s musicians say that they are being harassed by members of the political class for their music which criticises the regime, while others say that the political opposition is making the threats to make the government look like the culprits. In the confusion of the pre-election period, Senegal’s vocal musicians are getting caught in the crossfire.

Death threats
El Hadj Dia, a rapper who wrote a song asking that the Senegalese president step down from power, says he has received death threats by telephone from supporters of the president. The artist, who goes by the name of Red Black, says his song ‘Na Dem’, meaning ‘he should leave’ in the local language Wolof, was used at a public demonstration on July 23, 2011, in the capital Dakar along with other songs that expressed frustration over the current regime. Immediately after the release of the song, says Dia, he started to receive anonymous phone calls and now says he fears for his safety.

The July demonstration was organised by M23, an opposition movement that sprung up in the wake of the June riots in which thousands of people across Dakar and larger towns of Senegal protested against the President’s attempts to change the constitution. This was the same demonstration in which Thiat, another Senegalese rapper and member of the popular grassroots movement ‘Y’en a Marre’ (‘we’re fed up’) was arrested and detained for giving a speech in which he allegedly called the President a liar. Thiat was later released without charge.

Outspoken music
Following the July 23 demonstration, Dia says, a “senior member” of the government rang him and offered him money in exchange for not playing it in public. Dia says he refused and continued to perform the song. In October, he received an anonymous phone call from a man who warned him that if he didn’t stop criticising the president, ‘they’ would kill him. Following an appearance on Walf TV on 17 October, Dia received another anonymous death threat by telephone, he says. The government denies any such threats.

Complaints that the rapper made at a Dakar police station were never followed up on. Dia further heard, through a family member, that members of the Movement of Liberal Pupils and Students (MEEL), a government youth organisation, were planning to physically attack Dia for his outspoken music. Vieux Ndiaye, the administrative secretary of MEEL, denies all association with these threats, and states that “violence is not something that the movement supports or appreciates. Senegal has always been, and always will be, a free country.”
 
The power of music
President Abdoulaye Wade recognises the power of music in Senegal, a country where the average age of the population of 12 million is 19. During the electoral campaign period in the year 2000, musicians tired of Socialist Party rule released a barrage of politically-motivated songs. Artists like Didier Awadi, Xuman and Daara J, hugely popular with young people, encouraged youth through their music to vote for change. Long-time opposition member Abdoulaye Wade was voted in and with him came promises of jobs and development.

But critics of Wade, including rappers, say that he did not keep his promises. The high cost of living, unemployment, flooding in the suburbs of Dakar and an energy crisis in the capital which dents development and makes every day life a struggle, are the main criticisms of this regime’s rule. Once again, it is musicians who are the most vocal critics of the regime.


      ‘Y’en A Marre’ has encouraged thousands of young people to register for their voting cards

On 21 December, the rap-led civil society group Y’en A Marre released a single ‘Faux pas Forcer’, warning Abdoulaye Wade ‘to leave by the main door before someone else chases you out’. Since the group’s formation at the beginning of 2011, the movement has encouraged thousands of young people to register for their voting cards – cards which the rappers say the government was trying to stop them from having as they are likely to cast a vote against him – and have led press conferences and rallies to encourage people to make a choice for change in the February elections.

We have had enough
“We are at our limits,” said rapper and Y’en A Marre member Thiat on the day of the release. “We have to show the regime that we have had enough.” With the opposition divided and few people able to credibly stand against Wade during the elections, it is Senegal’s musicians who are at the forefront of the campaign to have him voted from power in February.

Y’en A Marre says it has also received death threats by text message but Fadel Barro, one of the members says they try to ignore them. “We have received messages saying ‘you are the walking dead’ and ‘leave the old man [President Wade} alone or we will kill you’. But we try not to pay any attention to them because it could also be the opposition trying to stir things up. We are in a political context where everyone is trying to scare eachother.”

Worrying trend
El Hadj Dia’s threats and the arrest of Y’en A Marre’s Thiat come at a time when Senegal’s government is accused of becoming increasingly authoritarian. Journalists, musicians, political opposition members, doctors and economists have been questioned in recent months by the Division of Criminal Investigations (DIC) over their critique of the government, a worrying trend in a country which has always prided itself on its freedom of speech.

In October 2011, an opposition activist Malick Noel Seck received a two year sentence having been found guilty of threatening the lives of judges at the Constitutional Court. According to Reuters news agency, in a letter to judges at the Court, Seck said that Wade should be limited to two terms and said “we will return in numbers to hold you accountable “if Wade is permitted to stand in February’s election. The constitution has a two term limit but Wade says his first term does not count as changes to the constitution were made during his first term in power.

People will continue to speak out
In December 2011, Alioune Tine, director of the Senegalese human rights organisation RADDHO was questioned for six hours by the DIC over plans to organise an opposition march on the same day as meeting of Abdoulaye Wade’s Parti Democratique Senegalais. Tine was also hospitalised in June after being badly beaten during an opposition rally over proposed changes to the constitution by militants of Wade’s party.

“This kind of intimidation is unjust,” says Oumar Diallo, RADDHO’s legal adviser. “We are in a country where the constitution allows us freedom of expression and the police should not get involved in that.” He does not believe, however, that the government’s heavy handed treatment of vocal critics of the regime will prevent people from speaking out. “This just convinces people’s belief that this regime is unjust.”


Rose Skelton is a freelance journalist based in Senegal, focusing on music, culture and politics in the West African region


The rapper Red Black who recieved death threats after releasing a song criticising the Senegalese regime

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