Flag of Senegal

By Jade Hinnant

I. Introduction

On the west coast of Africa’s vast continent lies a country rich with both tragic and inspiring history, a dynamic mix of ethnicities, and a counter-culture political system. Less well-known to the western world, Senegal is a country worth learning a little about. The West African country is known for its counterculture approach to government and personal freedoms of its citizens. Surrounded by countries who limit their citizens’ ability to speak openly, Senegal has set a new trend, allowing its people much more freedom to communicate without punishment. Exploring Senegal’s background, analyzing historic and present legal matters, and comparing those events alongside similar instances within the United States will provide a holistic understanding of the country’s stance on free speech and free press.

II. Historic Background

Early speech traditions of native Senegalese include a story-telling ritual where history is passed down orally. Rather than recording events on paper, the people of the area used the spoken word, a practice which is still implemented today. As a result, speech was utilized far more than writing and had few regulations. Eventually, however, this all changed. In the late 1500s, the Dutch moved in to Senegal and began a slave trading operation out of a port on the island of Goree (BBC News). A century later, however, the French took over the area and continued the slave trade. After a brief property battle with the British during the Seven Years War, the French asserted their power over the land and, by the late 1800s, had taken over the whole of the Senegal territory. With their arrival also came the evils of the slave trade, and soon, Africans were being kidnapped from their homes and shipped across the ocean to work as slaves in distant lands. While the native people who resided in present-day Senegal may have enjoyed certain freedoms prior to the arrival of the Dutch and French, they eventually had those freedoms taken away as the slave trade was introduced to the area. Because the slave trade grew to be prominent in the country, freedom of speech was a privilege granted only to those who were “free” (research does not indicate whether freedom of speech was further limited in regards to gender, class, age, etc.). Although the horrid slave trade had finally come to an end, equality still did not dramatically improve. According to Gilles, “[t]he imposition of French sovereignty leveled Senegal’s aristocratic societies by stripping their old rulers of their royal prerogatives, disarming the ceddo nobility, and formally abolishing slavery. Colonialism also promoted “equality” by according the same low political status to kings, nobles, commoners…” (27). Still, one interesting aspect of Senegalese culture emerged during this time, as noted by author Hilary Jones: “The emergence of an independent press provided an avenue for certain individuals within the métis [Descendants of African women called signares and European merchants or soldiers] community to articulate their ideas and con-test colonial practices…In their newspapers and public speeches, they grappled with the same contradictions inherent in French colonialism. They argued against the abuse of colonial power but considered conquest necessary for progress. They decried the exploitation of workers but held personal investments in the perpetuation of slave mar-kets in the interior and the colonial labor regime” (1, 98). Eventually, Senegal became a free country altogether and, in 1960, arose as a nation independent from France.

Today, Senegal “has a surface area of 196,722 square kilometers (km2), which supports a population estimated at 6.9 million in 1988,” holds the capitol of Dakar, and is known for its democratic approach to government and personal freedoms of its citizens (Pison 9). According to human rights’ expert Horace Adjolohoun, “Senegal is a relatively decentralized civil law country with three branches of government, the executive, legislature and judiciary, which share in the state powers. According to Senegalese Constitution, which is the supreme law of the land, the country is a liberal democratic republic. The organs of state power are the President of the Republic, the National Assembly, the Government and the Judiciary. Constitutionally organised as a semi-presidential system with checks and balances, the rule of law and separation of powers, Senegal nonetheless has a rather strong presidency” (NYU Law Global). Even with an emphasis on presidential authority, Senegal has set a new trend of allowing its people much more freedom to communicate without punishment. Writing a new constitution in 2001, the government made sure to include writing that specifically states freedom of speech and press. According to Freedomhouse, “Article 8 of the 2001 constitution protects freedoms of opinion, expression, and the press, and Article 10 guarantees the right to express opinions freely in speech, in writing, in images, and by peaceful assembly. These freedoms are occasionally limited in practice.”After gaining its independence from France in 1960, Senegal has retained much of its French influence, with the national language remaining French. Over ninety percent of the population is Muslim; therefore, it is understandable that religion and politics have the propensity to intersect. One example can be found in the inequalities between men’s and women’s involvement in politics, which, as Cornejo et at suggest, may be due to religious restrictions on women. They note that “[t]he role of the Senegalese woman in the twentieth century was seen as an inferior housewife and women were believed to be violating rules and morals if they were politically invested. This role, however, appears to have transformed as Senegalese women experienced an increase in freedom of discussion scores with the elections of President Diouf in 1980 and Wade in 2000” (V-Dem Institute). What’s more, Muslim women continue to experience freedom as they involve themselves in politics. Aguis writes that “participating in a global, capitalist Sunni reform movement enables young Senegalese women to undertake processes of subjectivation where they define themselves in simultaneously religious and political terms, while negotiating an urban context of dramatic cultural and economic change” (73).

III. Free Speech

Looking at the history of free speech, Senegal has cases which both support and suppress the right to speak openly. Unfortunately, cases that took place further back in history are difficult to locate; therefore, this essay details a more brief history of free speech issues. While Freedom House notes that “Blasphemy, security, and criminal defamation laws are in place but generally not used to silence independent voices,” it does note a few exceptions, as does this article. For example, Senegal boasts a reputation for limiting the strong opinions of various rappers, a trend which has continued for several years, beginning around the year 2000 and continuing through 2014. At first, it may seem strange that, out of the plethora of public figures who might present a threat to political function, Senegal’s government would target music icons. Looking closer at the situation, however, reveals that these word-dropping celebrities possess tremendous influence on their fans, particularly youth, and are able to use their singing platforms to make strong political statements. When rappers turn out statements or song lyrics that appose government policy, they may find themselves reprimanded. With many Senegalese rappers vying for political changes in the early 2000s, they stated that they were “served with backdated tax bills, and [found] it difficult to get their songs on the radio or television. This has discouraged rappers from taking up the political campaign trail, as they did in 2000, and is ultimately, say some, leading to a weakening of the rap movement” (BBC News). Jumping to 2011, rapper Omar Toure, who goes by Thiat, was arrested and jailed for one night after making negative statements about the country’s former president, Abdoulaye Wade, at a public rally. BBC News reported that, “Mr Toure, who is known as Thiat, was arrested…for opposing Mr Wade’s plan to stand for re-election…” However, after multiple fans protested his release, “Police released Mr Toure without charging him. He was questioned over a speech he gave to thousands of supporters at a rally in the city…” Again in 2014, rapper Malal Talla spoke out against police at an anti-drug campaign and was arrested “on the charge of “insulting the police officers in the performance of their duties’” (The Standard). Like Toure, Talla’s arrest was followed by a protest to free him. After spending eight days in police custody, Talla was released without charges “after the judge ‘followed our argument and dismissed the indictment of the state prosecutor’, who had been pushing for a six month jail term…’” (The Standard). While all three cases ended with charges being dropped, they nonetheless illustrate both the governments’ power as well as their dislike of statements critical of their positions.

Yet freedom of expression deals not only with words or song lyrics, but also with symbols. For example, in support of a separate Biafran nation (a country born out of rebellion from Nigeria which remained in existence from 1967-1970), “Some Nigerian football fans were on Saturday expelled from a football stadium in Senegal for displaying Biafran flags. The fans were expelled minutes after they displayed Biafran flags alongside Nigerian flags at a football match between Nigeria and Algeria at the U-23 African Cup of Nations holding in Dakar, the Senegalese capital” (Premium Times). The football players’ actions were put to a stop and expelled by security officials and their demonstration label a “militant act” (Premium News). Covered by multiple news sources, including the Premium News cited in this article, the incident was not reported to have continued beyond the expulsion of the fans from the stadium.

IV. Free Press

Perhaps more limited than freedom of speech, however, is Senegalese freedom of press. Like free speech issues, the more historic press records are not readily available. As a result, a more recent overview of free press is provided. Unlike free speech, however, reports of free press are more prevalent, especially with organizations such as Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders advocating press liberties. Two out of the three newspapers listed in the World Trade Press’s communications profile on Senegal are noted as being “independent,” with the remaining paper listed as “pro-government” (18). Even so, rated by Freedomhouse as having a score of 49/100 (with 1 being the worst and 100 being the best), the Senegal score reveals its more controlling handle on the press. In the early 2000s, former president Abdoulaye Wade passed a press code which moved in favor of the press having more liberty to publish. However, a recent and rather controversial code which passed in June 2017 may counter Wade’s original vision. An article by the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) explains that, “Of particular concern to the media community is article 192 of law 14/2017 which states that a district chief executive, a deputy district chief executive or a governor can ban, suspend a media house or its programme, or confiscate its equipment, or shut down a media house, if any press or media publication is deemed to be a ‘threat to the national security.’” While some may view this as a reasonable stipulation, others, including the MFWA, feel that it may hinder certain freedoms of the press. The article further elaborates that, “[u]ntil now, the closure of a media outlet by a public authority was subject to authorisation by a judge. This new provision is, therefore a major regression for press freedom, especially because “national security” is a notoriously vague term which is susceptible to subjective interpretations” (Media Foundation for West Africa).

In another case in 2010, journalists were “fined 20 million CFA francs (30,000 euros) and given one-month suspended jail sentences in a libel case about alleged kickbacks in the allocation of a mobile phone licence” (Reporters Without Borders). An article by Reporters Without Borders noted that the journalists’ publication “claimed that ‘foreigners in association with very highly-placed Senegalese officials shared 40 million dollars in commissions” from the sale of a mobile phone licence to the Sudanese company Sudatel and named Sy, the president’s adviser on information and communication technology, as the chief culprit. It was Sy who brought the libel action.'”

Then, in 2015, a tragic episode took place in one of France’s media outlets which had repercussions on Senegal. France’s iconic newspaper, “Charlie Hebdo,” was viciously attacked and “[t]welve people, including some of the magazine’s best known cartoonists, were killed…by militant Islamist gunmen who said they were avenging a 2005 depiction of Prophet Muhammad” (BBC). Afterwards, a march took place in Paris in which President Sall participated. However, his actions were not well-received by some as, shortly after the march, distribution of Charlie Hebdo was banned throughout Senegal. BBC quotes one famous newspaper in Senegal as “question[ing] how [President Sall] could have marched in Paris for press freedom, only for his government to then ban the magazine’s edition depicting Prophet Muhammad.”

In the same way that free speech seems to be advocated for, except in certain and seemingly uncalled for cases, so is freedom of the press exercised. For example, the MFWA reported that “A Senegalese journalist was released on August 11, 2017 after spending over a month in detention for sharing a cartoon of President Macky Sall on whatsApp. Ouleye Mané, who works for Touba TV, was detained on June 30 alongside three others on charges of “‘publishing pictures which offend public morality.’” The photoshop image showed a naked body resting on President Sall’s chest.” Her actions produced mixed feelings among the public; “[s]ay the cartoon is offensive and transgresses the limits of freedom of expression. Others say the authorities have overreacted” (MFWA). With the MFWA advocating for greater liberties in freedom of press, they assert that, “la Convention des Jeunes Reporteurs du Senegal (CJRS), a reporters’ guild and national partners of MFWA, take a dim view of the detention of the journalist and her three friends, (two women and a man). “Cartoon is a form of expression for journalists. Although we do not encourage insults and any form of denigration of the image of the president, this is a matter of journalistic responsibility and not of legality,” said Boubacar Boly, CJRS’ Director of Communication’” (MFWA).  Although the journalists were eventually released, as were the rappers in the cases above, they were detained for a significantly longer period of time. Their charges, however, were apparently not connected with insulting the president, but with displaying a piece that “offended public morality.”

According to a local analyst cited by Reporters Without Borders, when it comes to matters of national security, “the threat of terrorism in West Africa has rendered the Senegalese authorities less inclined to tolerate media coverage of military matters.” This statement was made in reference to the arrest of the publisher and one of the reporters of L’Observateur, a prominent Senegalese newspaper. After the paper published an article giving out details of Senegalese troops and their travel to Yemen, both the publisher and a reporter, as well as the publisher of another newspaper, were “charged…and questioned for several hours” (Reporters Without Borders).

V. Critical Comparison

After examining the past and present issues involving free speech and free press in Senegal, a pattern can be found. It appears that, while Senegal bolsters a democratic society, it also displays tendencies to suppress criticism of government officials. When the three rappers used their public platform to speak out against government policy, all were detained. Even more severe, the case of the journalists being punished for revealing a misuse of funds my politicians hints that a Senegalese judge may rule in favor of punishing those who criticize government leaders. This, however, is not the case in United States, where previous court cases resulted in opposite rulings. In Hustler v. Falwell, a case decided by the United States Supreme Court in 1998, Jerry Falwell, a prominent public figure, sued the publishers of a pornographic magazine called Hustler for “libel, invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress” after they published a crude parody about Falwell’s “first time” with his mother. However, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Hustler Magazine, upholding the First and Fourteenth Amendments, which prohibit “a public figure from recovering damages for tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress, by reason of a magazine’s publication of advertisement parody, without showing in addition that publication contained false statement of fact which was made with actual malice…[this] sort of robust political debate encouraged by the First Amendment is bound to produce speech that is critical of those who hold public office or those public figures who are ‘intimately involved in the resolution of important public questions or, by reason of their fame, shape events in areas of concern to society at large’” (Hustler v. Falwell). In this case, Falwell’s libel charges were set aside in light of the fact that he was a public figure and subject to scrutiny from others. The matter of publicity, however, did not offer protection to the Senegalese rappers who were detained nor the journalists whose charges were ultimately upheld.

Senegal has also taken a stance on freedom of press in relation to the potential for terrorism to occur as seen in the arrest of the publisher and reporter from L’Observatuer. Concerning threats to national security, the United States is also willing to restrict free press when it becomes a threat to the safety of the nation. In the 1931 case of Near v. Minnesota, for example, the court stated that “No one would question but that a government might prevent actual obstruction to…the publication of the sailing dates of transports or the number and location of troops” (8). However, the Supreme Court has taken such precautions with this enforcing this act as to allow the publication of reports such as those under scrutiny in Near v. Minnesota and those made by the New York Times in NY Times v. United States. In 1971, after cautiously releasing the findings of government lies about the Vietman War, the New York Times faced charges made against them by the United States government. Yet the justices found, as Justice Black asserted, that “in revealing the workings of government that led to the Vietnam war, the newspapers nobly did precisely that which the Founders hoped and trusted they would do” (New York Times v. United States, 3). It could be that, while both Senegal and the United States exercise press limitations when it comes to war and terrorism, Senegal is more willing to use its control.

VI. Conclusion

A country whose freedoms have evolved drastically in the last few hundred years, Senegal has undergone many different policies on freedoms of speech and press. From free natives, to colonized French citizens and even slaves, to members of a present-day democracy, Senegalese people boast a history in which freedom has not always been available. Now, they stand out among other West African countries as extending generous independence in regards to speech and press, even going so far as to make special provisions in the country’s 2001 constitution. Still, opinions of the public are not always found to be protected, especially when they criticize government officials. In these cases, speakers and writers can be punished, even if for a brief time, for their outspokenness. The government’s restriction of speech and press differs somewhat from that of the United States, where court cases and laws often protect the citizen’s right to broadcast their offensive opinion. However, when oppression occurs in Senegal, it is met by organizations, such as Reporters Without Borders, MWFA, and IFEX who not only point out the government’s acts but call for an end to them. In addition, other measures are being taken to lay the foundation for better freedoms in Senegal by organizations such as UNESCO. In March 2017, the UNESCO Regional Office for West Africa conducted a training course in Dakar with a missionto improve capacities of security forces to guarantee freedom of expression and the safety of journalists and facilitate dialogue and cooperation between security forces, media professionals, and defenders of women’s rights” (UNESCO). These, and other initiatives, offer hope to those in Senegal who are fighting for the right engage in discourse and media without inappropriate government interference. By continuing to pursue truth in diligence, the people of Senegal will have hopes of ensuring a freer political climate for future generations.

Works Cited

Jones, Hilary. The Métis of Senegal : Urban Life and Politics in French West Africa. Indiana University Press, 2013. EBSCOhost.

Augis, Erin. Tolerance, Democracy, and Sufis in Senegal. Columbia University Press, 2013. JSTOR.

World Trade Press. “Senegal Media, Internet & Telecommunications Complete Profile : This All-Inclusive Profile Includes All Three of Our Communications Reports.” 2nd Ed. World Trade Press. 2010. ProQuest.

Gellar, Sheldon. Democracy in Senegal : Tocquevillian Analytics in Africa, Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. ProQuest Ebook Central,

Pison, Gilles. Population Dynamics of Senegal. National Academic Press, 1995. EBSCOhost.

“Freedom in the World 2015-Senegal.” Freedomhouse, 15, March, 2018,

“Senegal police free anti-Wade rapper Toure aka Thiat.” BBC News, 27 July 2011,

Skelton, Rose. “Senegal rappers fight for freedom.” BBC News, 16 February, 2007,

“Senegal’s new press code: One step forward, two steps back.” Media Foundation for West Africa, 17 July 2017,

Adjolohoun, Horace. “Visiting the Senegalese Legal System and Legal Research: A Human Rights Perspective.” Hauser Global Law School Program, March/April 2009,

“Charlie Hebdo attack: African newspapers apologise over cover.” BBC News, 15 January, 2015,

“Senegalese journalists arrested over military coverage.” ifex, 21 July, 2015,

“Senegal: Journalist spent 6 weeks in detention for sharing cartoon of President Macky Sall.” ifex, 22 August, 2017,

“Senegal.” MWFA, n.d.,

“Senegal profile-Timeline.” BBC News, 24 December, 2017,

Hustler v. Falwell. 485 U.S. 46. U.S. Supreme Court. 1998.

U.S.C.A. Const.Amends. 114.

New York Times Company v. United States. 403 U.S. 713. U.S. Supreme Court. 1971.

Near v. State of Minnesota ex rel. Olson, Co. Atty. 283 U.S. 697. U.S. Supreme Court. 1931.

“Senegalese Security Forces Trained on Freedom of Expression, the Safety of Journalists, and defenders of women’s rights.” UNESCO, April 6, 2017,


This essay was last updated April 30, 2018.



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