9 dead, TV stations shut, internet disrupted as court verdict plunges Senegal into chaos

Nine protesters have died, the internet has been disrupted and the signals of a pro-opposition television station temporarily cut as the conviction of Senegal’s opposition leader Ousmane Sonko plunges the country into chaos.

Deadly riots broke out in several cities across Senegal on June 1, 2023, after the court verdict with the security services responding with brutal force.

“We regretfully noted the acts of violence that resulted in the destruction of public and private property and, unfortunately, nine deaths in Dakar and Ziguinchor,” Interior Minister Antoine Diome said on national television on the night of June 1, 2023.

The state authorities have cut the signal of the television channel Walf Tv on DTT and Canal+ for at least 48 hours. Walf TV, like most Senegalese TV channels, dedicated an editorial to the trial of Ousmane Sonko.  Several reporters and regional correspondents were dispatched to follow in real time the demonstrations that broke out following Sonko’s conviction. The opposition leader was sentenced to two years in prison and fined 600,000 CFA francs (around $1,000) for “corrupting young people”.

Specifically, the authorities are criticising Walf TV for showing continuous images of the demonstrations. They justify the suspension of the television station on the basis of Article 192 of the Press Code.

“In exceptional circumstances, the relevant administrative authority (Governor, Prefect or Sub-Prefect) may, in order to prevent or put a stop to an attack on State security or territorial integrity, or in the case of incitement to hatred or incitement to murder, order: the seizure of a media outlet’s broadcasting equipment; the suspension or cessation of the broadcast of a programme; the temporary closure of the media outlet”, Article 192 of Senegal’s Press Code states.

The management of Walf TV said that they had not received any notification prior to the suspension. The Conseil national de régulation de l’Audiovisuel (CNRA), the media regulator, denies any responsibility for the cutting of Walf TV’s signal on DTT.

In addition to taking Walf TV off air, the authorities also disrupted the internet, with several social networks heavily restricted.

“NetBlocks metrics confirm the restriction of Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Instagram, YouTube, Telegram and other social media platforms in Senegal on 1 June 2023. The measure comes amid widespread protests over the sentencing of opposition leader Ousmane Sonko,” said NetBlocks, the global internet monitoring platform.

The incidents of June 1, 2023, are not a first. In February 2023, the CNRA suspended Walf TV for seven days. The media regulator accused the station of violating the code of ethics by showing scenes of violence. The TV station covered live a protest march by supporters of the opposition politician Ousmane Sonko which turned violent.

Two years earlier, in March 2021, several civilians were killed, access to social networks was restricted and at least two media outlets were suspended when protests broke out following Sonko’s arrest.

The Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) is deeply concerned about the actions of the authorities which have occasioned severe violations of the right to freedom of assembly, press freedom and access to information. While we condemn the excesses on the part of some demonstrators, the MFWA is dismayed by the disproportionate response from the security agencies which has led to regrettable deaths. We call on the authorities to investigate the violence on both sides and to punish the perpetrators of the lethal repression. We also call on the authorities, the law enforcement agencies, civil society and political parties to take the necessary measures to ease political tensions, ahead of next year’s presidential elections.

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