Condemning a broadcasting bill passed by Senegal’s national assembly on 21 December as “poorly drafted, ambiguous, unfair and repressive,” Reporters Without Borders today urged President Abdoulaye Wade to refuse to sign it into law in order to restore some calm to the ongoing debate about press law reform.
Approved by just 11 votes to 2 in a 120-member parliament, the law would create a National Council for the Regulation of Broadcasting (CNRA) which, in Reporters Without Borders’ view, would probably threaten press freedom. Made up largely of personalities chosen by the president with no connection to journalism, it looks as though the council would function as a supreme tribunal for monitoring and punishing radio and TV stations.
The government’s declared aim of “contributing pragmatic responses to the challenges of a new radio and TV landscape” will not be achieved, Reporters Without Borders believes.
The law is vague about the CNRA’s composition. Named by the president, members are supposed to come from such backgrounds “human rights” movements, “women’s groups” and the “elderly.” Only one of its nine members will be a “broadcasting professional.” It will be able to impose punishments ranging from temporary closure to exorbitant fines of up to 10 million CFA francs (more than 15.000 euros).
According to the bill, this unrepresentative body will be empowered to ensure that broadcast media content “adheres to the rules of professional ethics and conduct, including respect for the institutions of the republic, private life, and the honour and integrity of the individual; and respect for national unity, territorial integrity and the republic’s secular nature.”
This means that all sorts of subjects will henceforth be under surveillance in Senegal. Will the broadcast media be able to talk freely and critically about the president, the government, parliament, elected officials and judges (all “institutions of the republic”) without being punished? Will they be able to criticise nepotism and expose corruption (“private life” and “honour”)? Will they be able to mention the separatists in Casamance (“territorial integrity”). Almost certainly not.
They will not be able to tackle sensitive subjects without being exposed to sanctions by this body which has the power to decide if professional ethics are being respected. Journalists will have no choice but to fall in line. They will be able to appeal against the CNRA’s rulings before the council of state, but appeals will not hold up implementation of the sanctions, which will go ahead regardless while the appeal process takes its course. Pay now and we’ll see who is right later.
The rules of democracy clearly establish that the legitimacy of a media regulatory body must be recognised by both the government and journalists. If it is not, every kind of abuse can be disguised as proper questioning and challenging, and the mutual recognition between government and press is broken.
The Council for the Respect of Professional Ethics and Conduct (CRED), which Senegal’s journalists created on their own initiative, would be stripped of all its authority. The Senegal Union of News and Communication Professional (SYNPICS) set up the CRED because it rightly wanted to establish that “journalists only recognise a tribunal of peers in questions of honour.” But you cannot ask that the press to behave responsibly and at the same time deprive it of the tools it gave itself to ensure ethical conduct within the profession.
It would be pointless to decriminalize press offences, as Senegal has promised to do, if a bureaucratic entity is created to oversee the media without their participation. In any crisis, the government would hypocritically pass the buck to the CNRA on the grounds of its supposed (but highly questionable) independence. At the same time, the bolder broadcast media would do everything in their power to sabotage an entity designed to punish them. Nothing would be solved. The problems would continue.
Law No. 38/2005 creating this council should be suppressed before it sees the light of day. Today in Senegal, the government and the press need to talk calmly to each other. The concrete and indispensable outcome of such a dialogue should be the creation of a press regulatory authority that resembles neither a board of guardians nor a corporatist assembly. And talks on this should get under way as soon as possible.