Senegal: Concerns over deadly repression, violence and internet shutdowns

REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

ARTICLE 19 is deeply concerned about the loss of human lives and violence, as well as the internet restrictions imposed by the government in the wake of recent protests in Senegal, following the conviction of opposition leader Ousmane Sonko. 

Bulakali Alfred Nkuru, the Regional Director of ARTICLE 19 Senegal and West Africa stated: 

We strongly urge the authorities to show openness and end restrictions to defuse ongoing tensions. It is crucial to maintain the openness of public space, uphold the right to access information, and safeguard freedom of expression. Urgently lifting any restrictions of the internet and allowing citizens who wish to demonstrate peacefully to express themselves without fear of repression would demonstrate the willingness of the State of Senegal to safeguard the principles of public freedoms set by international standards even in times of tension. 

A thorough and transparent investigation must be carried out into the excessive use of force, the loss of life and all allegations of degrading treatment against protesters.  Report from the investigation must be made public to maintain  citizens’ trust in the rule of law and institutions. The release of the demonstrators arrested pending the end of investigations, as well as of detained journalists and activists would be a positive signal from the government. 

It’s important that everyone rejects violence and the polarisation of the discourse decreases. 

Bloody repression of protests with the use of lethal weapons

At least 16 people, some of whom were shot with live bullets, have lost their lives during violent protests that began on June 1, 2023, in Dakar, Ziguinchor, and other regions of Senegal. The protests followed the conviction of opposition leader Ousmane Sonko, who was sentenced to two years in prison for ‘corrupting youth’. 

In response to spontaneous protests that started in different locations, security forces used teargas to prevent unauthorised gatherings. The protests have quickly turned into riots in some areas, with attacks and destruction of public and private property. 

ARTICLE 19 is deeply dismayed by the excessive and disproportionate use of force, including the use of lethal weapons. Consistent testimonies indicate that people died as a result of being shot with live ammunition. In a press release, the Red Cross stated they rescued 357 injured demonstrators, including a pregnant woman, and 36 members of the defence and security forces. A total of 78 protesters were seriously injured and have been transferred to medical facilities. Hundreds of demonstrators, whose numbers have not yet been made public, have been arrested. 

Although force may be used during violent protests, it must be strictly necessary and not disproportionate, as strictly regulated by international norms and standards aimed at protecting the fundamental rights of protesters. 

ARTICLE 19 is also concerned by allegations of the presence, alongside security forces, of individuals in civilian clothing, who took part in the repression, subjecting protesters to inhumane and degrading treatment. Other allegations suggest the use of civilians as human shields by some members of the security forces. If these allegations are confirmed, it would constitute a grave violation of the principles of law enforcement and protection of protesters. We emphasise that security forces involved in maintaining order during a protest must wear distinctive signs that identify themselves as such.

We call on the Senegalese authorities to carry out an independent, thorough and transparent investigation into the use of lethal force, the deaths by bullet, and all other allegations in order to establish responsibility and ensure justice. For proven facts, the perpetrators of violence against demonstrators must establish who is responsible on the ground and who gave the orders. The report must be made public.

As sporadic and unauthorised protests continue in certain areas and tensions remain high, we urge the Senegalese authorities to refrain from using lethal force and any disproportionate force when maintaining order, to guarantee the protection of the lives and physical integrity of the protesters and promote de-escalation by releasing the recently arrested protesters and other activists.

Restrictions on the right to information and internet freedom

Internet freedom, media freedom, and the public’s right to information have been severely undermined following the restrictive measures imposed by the authorities. 

On the night of June 1, 2023, Orange and Tigo operators began restricting  access and usage of certain applications and social networks, including Twitter, WhatsApp, Facebook, and YouTube. These restrictions intensified  with the suspension of internet access on mobile data, announced by the Senegalese authorities on  June 4, 2023.

The signal of Walf TV was cut off on the night of June 1. The regulatory authority, Conseil National de la Régulation de l’Audiovisuel (CNRA), denied any responsibility for the signal interruption, stating that there was a procedure to follow in this regard. 

The Center for Studies in Information Sciences and Technologies, which provides journalism training, was attacked by a group of protesters, with cars being destroyed.

All these attacks undermine the freedoms of expression, information, and the media, and impede many other rights of citizens for whom the internet now plays a crucial role. The authorities must restore access to all internet applications, in accordance with their constitutional obligations and international human rights standards. 

In this regard, Principle 37 on freedom of expression and access to information in Africa  calls on states not to prevent the communication of information online, particularly through internet shutdowns, and to refrain from interrupting internet access and other digital applications. Although the right to freedom of expression is not absolute and limitations may be justified, Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) conditions any restriction on freedom of expression to be lawful, necessary, and proportionate.  This is not  the case with internet shutdowns, as those  affect everyone. Less restrictive measures are available, such as the use of social media platforms’ community rules regarding hate speech and online violence.

Internet shutdowns and other online restrictions constitute a violation of freedom of expression under African jurisprudence. The Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has in the past condemned Togo and Nigeria for internet shutdowns and restrictions on the use of Twitter, citing violations of freedom of expression.

ARTICLE 19, Jonction, APPEL, and RADDHO have issued a statement calling on the Senegalese authorities to put an end to the suspension of internet access, and the use of social networks. The statement has received support from 24 other organisations in Africa.

Reactions from the government and the international community

The African Union has called for the respect of citizens’ rights to exercise their freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres strongly condemned the recent acts of violence and called on all actors involved to exercise restraint. Similarly, France, which maintains close relations with Senegal, has expressed its “extreme concern” about the situation. The Gambia has called for dialogue, and the United States for the safeguarding  of the culture of democracy and the rule of law.

As Senegal prepares for the review of its human rights situation through the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) mechanism this year, we call  the African Union and the United Nations to conduct a mission to Senegal to assess the violations of public liberties, particularly freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly, freedom of the press, and internet freedom, and to formulate recommendations to the government to safeguard civic space.

Background 

Since 2021, Senegal has experienced a tumultuous political period marked by several e vents including the accusation of the opposition leader Ousmane Sonko of rape. The case polarised public opinion and raised political tensions in the country. The Sonko affair sparked numerous protests and civil unrest, with clashes between Sonko’s supporters and law enforcement, resulting in deaths, destruction of property and arrests. The authorities responded by imposing restrictions on civic space, including banning certain protests. 

Alongside these restrictions, there has also been growing pressure on independent media. Journalists have been harassed, arrested, or intimidated by the police and occasionally by protesters for their coverage of ongoing political events. Media outlets such as WALF TV have been suspended for periods of time. 

These measures have drawn strong criticism from human rights defenders and civil society organisations, who have denounced the infringement on press freedom and freedom of expression.

Faced with the tense situation, President Macky Sall, initiated a national dialogue at the end of May 2023, with the aim of finding a peaceful solution and defusing tensions a few months ahead of the presidential elections scheduled for February 2024. The process aimed to bring together representatives from the government, opposition, civil society, and other key stakeholders, in order to reach a consensus on necessary reforms. However, the dialogue was rejected by some members of the opposition. The situation remains tense, with  the opposition coalition calling for further protests.  

It is essential to learn from the current situation and reform the legal framework governing the press, freedom of expression and the exercise of public freedoms. 

The existing provisions which impose restrictions must be repealed. An inclusive and more open legal framework will better protect individual freedoms and democracy, while giving the  State  means to manage potential disturbances  in alignment with established international norms and standards”  added Bulakali Alfred Nkuru. 

Contacts:

Maateuw Mbaye, Program Assistant, ARTICLE 19 Senegal/West Africa

Email: maateuwmbaye@article19.org 

Tel: +221 785958337

Aissata Diallo Dieng, Office Manager, ARTICLE 19 Senegal/West Africa

Email: senegal@article19.org 

Tel: +221 338690322