At a news conference yesterday in Dakar, Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Robert Ménard presented a report on the Senegalese public media’s coverage of the first round of the presidential election. It shows that the state-owned media displayed a pro-government bias throughout the campaign.
The national TV broadcaster Radiodiffusion Télévision Sénégalaise (RTS), the official Agence de Presse Sénégalaise (APS) news agency and the state-owned daily Le Soleil all violated the rules of democratic pluralism by devoting almost all of their news coverage to the policies of the government, which is dominated by the Senegalese Democratic Party (PDS). This is the party of President Abdoulaye Wade, who is running for another term.
The Senegalese government never respected the principle of ministerial discretion, under which senior government officials are supposed to adopt a low profile during the campaign. Instead, opposition parties were sidelined throughout the campaign, obtaining just 0.06 per cent and 5.85 per cent of the overall news coverage on the public TV channel RTS 1 and on the state radio (RSI and the Chaîne Nationale network).
Nonetheless, the principle of equal treatment for the 15 presidential candidates was generally respected in the special election programmes, albeit with a slight advantage for President Wade. All the candidates had a more or less equal opportunity to speak on the state television and radio.
The biggest and most persistent imbalances were in the state-owned print media. The APS news agency devoted more than 25 per cent of its entire news coverage to President Wade and his party, the PDS, while the daily Le Soleil gave him more than 40 per cent of its space during the campaign. One of the highlights of Le Soleil’s election coverage was the publication of a 12-page special pull-out on Wade’s programme, in violation of the Senegalese electoral code’s ban of propaganda in favour of any presidential candidate.
RTS 1 treats election as digression
The public TV station RTS 1 created a special programme called “Candidates have the word” for the presidential election campaign. It was broadcast in two sections, from 7:00 p.m. to 7:40 p.m. and from 9:00 p.m. to 9:40 p.m. and was carried by the public radio stations at the same time. Reporters Without Borders hails this initiative by the public broadcaster RTS as it unquestionably helped to balance the airtime of the various candidates.
However, the French and Wolof-language news programmes created an imbalance by giving almost eight additional minutes to President Wade during the first week of the three-week campaign. This imbalance was not redressed during the last two weeks. The campaign was badly marred by the absence of views critical of the government in the news programmes, in which more than 99 per cent of overall coverage was about the activities of the PDS government. The lack of debates between people of differing views was also regrettable.
RSI and Chaîne Nationale try to be balanced but fall short
The national radio broadcaster made a significant attempt to be balanced throughout the campaign, letting all the candidates speak on the air and providing regular reports on the activities of each candidate by reporters who were given the job of following them around. But despite all these efforts, the rules of equality were not fully respected.
With a total of 9 hours, 6 minutes and 22 seconds of airtime in campaign coverage by the two public radio stations, President Wade had about one hour more than all the other candidates over the three weeks of the campaign. All the other candidates were treated relatively equally as regards each other, except Robert Sagna of the Takku Defaraat Sénégal (UFDS) coalition, who got just 8 hours, 4 minutes and 6 seconds.
As regards news coverage by the public radio stations, there was a bias during the first week towards President Wade, who got 9.68 per cent of the coverage. Overall, balance was restored during the second week, but was disturbed again during the third week, when the candidate of the Jubanti Sénégal coalition, Abdoulaye Bathily (LD/MPT), received more than three hours of airtime.
While candidates were given more or less equal time to speak on the air during the first two weeks, this was not the case during the third week, above all as a result of new section called “The guest” on the French and Wolof-language news programmes. Four of the candidates - Mamadou Lamine Diallo (independent), Mame Adama Guèye (independent), Moustapha Niasse of the Alternative 2007 (AFP) coalition and Idrissa Seck of the Rewmi part and the And Liguey Sénégal coalition - were not invited to take part.
Professional coverage by APS, but not evenly apportioned
The national news agency APS ran many dispatches about all 15 candidates. It also offered detailed, illustrated portraits of each candidate and their political career.
However, coverage of the candidates was not equally apportioned throughout the campaign. There was systematically more coverage of President Wade, who had totalled 25 per cent of all coverage by the end of the campaign. He was also mentioned more often than his rivals in APS general news dispatches, especially in press reviews, because of his status as presidential incumbent.
The principle of equality was also not respected among the candidates opposed to President Wade. Idrissa Seck of Rewmi got 10.62 per cent of APS’s overall news coverage and Moustapha Niasse (AFP) got 10.18 per cent, while all the other candidates got less than 10 per cent (9.18 per cent for Socialist Party candidate Ousmane Tanor Dieng and 7.63 per cent for LD/MPT candidate Abdoulaye Bathily).
References to President Wade represented 21.46 per cent of candidate references during the first week of the campaign, against 13.79 per cent for Moustapha Niasse (AFP) and 9.20 per cent for Abdoulaye Bathily (LD/MPT). This imbalance was maintained during the second week and became even more marked during the third week, when news coverage related to Wade represented 26.32 per cent of overall coverage against just 12.63 per cent for Idrissa Seck of Rewmi in second position and 8.77 per cent for Ousmane Tanor Dieng of the Socialist Party in third position.
Le Soleil offers least balanced coverage
The state-owned daily Le Soleil’s coverage of the first round campaign was never balanced. It constantly praised President Wade, proclaiming itself as the president’s newspaper. Support for Wade was expressed many times in its columns, while his opponents received biased, negative treatment. There was no attempt to give the candidates equal coverage. On the contrary, coverage of President Wade took up 40 per cent of the newspaper’s space during the three weeks of the campaign. The other candidates all got less than 9 per cent.
This bias became more accentuated as the campaign progressed. News coverage of President Wade represented 21.46 per cent of the newspaper’s space during the first week, 31.04 per cent during the second week and peaked at 51.04 per cent in the third week.
On 19 February, Le Soleil published a special 12-page pullout entirely devoted to President Wade, with a foreword by his campaign manager, Prime Minister Macky Sall, although the Senegalese electoral code bans publication of any presidential candidate propaganda or publicity.
The newspaper was not warned or punished by the Senegalese media regulatory authority, the National Council for the Regulation of Broadcasting (CNRA) - whose mandate includes regulation of electoral propaganda - and it never tried to correct its bias against the other candidates.
In the event of a second round, Reporters Without Borders urges:
The public broadcast media to purse their attempts to be balanced in news coverage linked to the candidates. The news programmes should in future give more airtime to the opposition’s activities in order to ensure respect for democratic pluralism.
Public print media editors to make it a policy to give all candidates equal treatment. If there are serious violations of Senegalese law, the print media must be warned by the appropriate authorities and must be forced to redress any imbalance or bias against any candidate.