african journalists urge senegal to release pape ale niang

Pape Alé Niang, an investigative reporter, was arrested on charges of disclosing confidential government information. Journalists and rights defenders say he was just doing his job.

The health of a prominent Senegalese journalist detained on charges of exposing confidential government information is deteriorating after a nearly three-week hunger strike, according to his lawyers, who say that he has refused care from doctors at the hospital where he is being treated.

The journalist, Pape Alé Niang, an investigative reporter with a wide domestic audience on Facebook and on the online news site he manages, Dakar Matin, was arrested in November — and again in December — after he reported on an investigation by the Senegalese security forces into the country’s main opposition leader.

The case of Mr. Niang, who began his hunger strike on Dec. 20, has raised alarm among African journalists, many of whom on Friday wrote in an open letter that his treatment epitomized a steady erosion of press freedom in a country that until recently had been considered an example in West Africa.

His situation worsened this past week after he refused to be on an IV drip, which would have provided vitamins and nutrients, and prevented doctors from checking his blood pressure and sugar levels, according to Moussa Sarr, one of Mr. Niang’s lawyers.

Mr. Sarr said that the doctors had little visibility on Mr. Niang’s condition but that “his health is seriously deteriorating and isn’t compatible with his detention.”

Mr. Niang’s detention comes as the state of press freedom has drastically deteriorated in West Africa over the past few years, for both domestic and international journalists.

In 2021, two Spanish reporters were killed in Burkina Faso, and a French journalist was kidnapped in Mali. His fate remains unknown. Last year, two journalists, one Dutch and one from Benin, were arrested in Benin while they were documenting security threats in the country’s north.

“Mali and Burkina Faso are increasingly becoming black holes for information,” said Sadibou Marong, the head of Reporters Without Borders’s West Africa bureau. “Nigeria is one of the most unsafe countries in the region for journalists. Senegal was an exception, but the Niang affair has tarnished that image.”

In the open letter on Friday, more than 70 African journalists and news organizations called for Mr. Niang’s immediate release. “Unless the judicial authorities want the international community to think that they seek to silence Pape Alé Niang and limit the right of Senegal’s citizens to be informed,” they wrote, “they must free him at once and drop all charges against him.”

According to local press groups, Mr. Niang is accused of reporting on a confidential document by the Senegalese gendarmerie about a high-profile investigation into Ousmane Sonko, the country’s main opposition leader and a likely candidate for its 2024 presidential election.

Carmen Abd Ali/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Mr. Sonko, a firebrand politician who placed third in the 2019 presidential election, was arrested in March 2021 on charges of raping an employee of a massage parlor. His arrest prompted protests that turned deadly, with Mr. Sonko and his supporters accusing President Macky Sall’s government of trying to silence him with made-up accusations.

Mr. Sonko, 48, has denied the charges. The continuing investigation has been closely followed, and in November, during an interview with investigators as part of the inquiry, the police deployed armored vehicles and officers to prevent unrest.

Mr. Niang was arrested a few days after that interview. He had been reporting on those security measures and had shared the document by the gendarmerie related to the investigation into Mr. Sonko. Local prosecutors charged him with disclosing information that could harm national defense, with disseminating false information that could discredit public institutions, and with concealing administrative and military documents.

Mr. Niang was released under legal supervision in mid-December, but he was arrested again less than a week later after a prosecutor said he had violated the terms of his release by commenting on social media about the charges against him. Mr. Sarr, Mr. Niang’s lawyer, denies the accusation.

Abdou Karim Fofana, a government spokesman, said in a telephone interview that he regretted that Mr. Niang had started a hunger strike, and he called press freedom an important pillar of Senegalese democracy. But Mr. Fofana also said that exposing classified documents was a threat to the rule of law.

“If people want to undermine the fundamentals of our democracy,” he said, “then we take our responsibilities.”

Still, Mr. Niang’s detention has come at odds with promises by Mr. Sall, the president, that no journalist would be imprisoned for violating press laws while he is in office.

Senegal’s upcoming presidential election has been a favorite topic of Mr. Niang’s. He often posts videos on social media to disseminate news, and some have covered the uncertainty over plans by Mr. Sall to run for a third term.

Many political scientists and legal experts say such a run would be unconstitutional because Senegal’s Constitution has a two-term limit, which Mr. Sall would exceed.

Carmen Abd Ali for The New York Times

Mr. Sall told The New York Times last month that there was “no legal debate” over whether he could run, but that he had not made a decision yet.

Reporters Without Borders ranked Senegal 73rd out of 180 on its 2022 World Press Freedom Index, down from 49th in 2021. Mr. Marong, of the group’s West Africa bureau, attributed the drop to attacks against journalists and to the temporary suspension of two television channels by the media regulator amid the protests related to the Sonko affair.

But the arrest and detention of Mr. Niang has gone one step further, he added, saying: “It’s a strong signal from the authorities who say, ‘Today, it’s Pape Alé. Tomorrow, it can be anyone else.’”

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