​​Senegal: Protect freedoms during democratic crisis

​​Senegal: Protect freedoms during democratic crisis - Civic Space

Senegalese police crack down on protests over election delay in Dakar, February 2024. Image: Zohra Bensemra / Reuters

ARTICLE 19 condemns the attacks on freedom of expression in Senegal, which have intensified since President Macky Sall postponed the presidential election, originally due to take place on 25 February, until 15 December 2024.

On 15 February, Senegal’s top court ruled that the decision to postpone the election was unconstitutional. ARTICLE 19 welcomes the ruling and calls on the government to fully comply with the court’s decision and hold elections as soon as possible.

As political tensions continue, we urge the government to acknowledge its responsibilities to uphold fundamental freedoms, including the right to protest and the right to freedom of expression. 

In particular, we call on the Government of Senegal to stop the deadly crackdown on protest, the targeting of media outlets, physical violence against journalists and political figures, and the imposition of internet shutdowns, which prevent the free flow of information. 

‘The violence and attacks against protesters we have witnessed in recent days are an attack on democracy and must end now. The government must respect peoples’ right to protest, and that means putting a stop to the use of firearms and excessive force,’ said Alfred Bulakali, Regional Director ARTICLE 19 Senegal and West Africa.

‘With tensions high across the country, access to information is vital. The safety of journalists must be guaranteed so they can cover and report on ongoing events without fear of reprisal. The internet shutdowns we have witnessed in recent days – and in recent years – limit civic engagement and are an unacceptable breach of Senegal’s international human rights obligations. The government must stop imposing them immediately.

‘The current crisis in Senegal will only be resolved with more information, and more free expression – not with further restrictions and crackdowns. The government must honour its international obligations and demonstrate its commitment to upholding civic freedoms and human rights.’


Freedom of expression is a fundamental pillar of democracy, particularly during election periods. It facilitates open dialogue and debate, enables people to voice their opinions, and helps ensure transparency. 

Freedom of expression violations during elections can undermine the integrity of the electoral process and erode public trust in democratic institutions. Censorship or restrictions on media coverage and harassment of journalists can distort public discourse, suppress dissenting voices, and manipulate public opinion. 


Presidential elections postponed 

For years, Senegal has been considered a model for democracy in West Africa, given its history of relatively peaceful transitions of power and commitment to democratic principles. 

However, since 2021, the country has experienced significant democratic backsliding: from a crackdown on opposition, prosecution of activists and repression of journalists and media outlets to violent responses to protest.

The presidential election was due to be held on 25 February 2024 but on 3 February 2024, President Macky Sall repealed the election decree,  thereby cancelling the election. On 5 February 2024 the parliament passed a law postponing the elections to 15 December and confirmed president Sall will remain in office until then. 

Ahead of the vote in parliament, security forces expelled opposition members from the chamber, denying them a chance to vote on the postponement of the election

The postponement sparked an outcry from the opposition and civil society and political actors, with the coalition Aar Sunu Election and  Plateforme des Forces vives de la Nation (F24), a coalition of civil society organisations and political parties, describing it as an ‘institutional coup’. The international community, including the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the European Union, France, the United States, Germany, and the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, have expressed deep concern about the situation, with US Secretary of State Antony Bliken calling for President Sall to restore Senegal’s electoral calendar and timeline for presidential transition. 

On 15 February, Senegal’s highest court, the Constitutional Council, annulled both President Sall’s decisions and the parliamentary bill postponing the elections. The court called for an election to be held ‘as soon as possible’, a decision welcomed by opposition politicians and civil society. 

Respect the right to protest 

In the aftermath of the parliamentary vote, Aar Sunu Election, F24, together with other citizen movements, called for nationwide protests against the postponement of the election. 

On 4 February, security forces used excessive force against political gatherings planned by candidates who were confirmed to stand in the 25 February election, as well as spontaneous gatherings in Dakar, leading to a wave of arrests. The call for protests continued throughout the week, with protests organised in different regions on Friday, 9 February.

Police brutality led to the deaths of three young people: Alpha Yéro Tounkara, Modou Gueye and Landing Diedhiou. The killing of Tounkara, a 22-year-old student, on 9 February, sparked further demonstrations in 8 public universities across the country.  

At least eight people have been injured by live ammunition and at least 266 people have been arrested in the current wave of protests. 

ARTICLE 19 is deeply alarmed by the violence used against protesters, as well as the repression of peaceful gatherings in which people come together to voice their discontent with the political situation in Senegal. 

The rally in Dakar organised by the Aar Sunu Election collective scheduled for 13 February was banned by the authorities only a few hours before it was due to take place on grounds that it ‘could seriously hamper traffic’. The organisers denounced the ban and vowed to continue action, with a new march due to take place on 17 February. Following the news of the court decision on 15 February, protest organisers stated that the demonstrations would go ahead, with additional protests planned for 16 February. 

Senegalese authorities must protect the right to peacefully demonstrate, as enshrined in Article 8 of Senegal’s constitution, and ensure that security forces only use of force during demonstrations in exceptional circumstances. It should be used only against violent protesters, only when strictly necessary, and only in strict proportion to the threat of violence. The UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials explicitly state that law enforcement officials should apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force. The Guidelines for the Policing of Assemblies by Law Enforcement Officials in Africa further provide that law enforcement officials must be subject to accountability mechanisms. The government must therefore conduct a thorough and independent investigation into any use of force by law enforcement to establish whether any human rights violations were committed. 

Protect journalists and safeguard media freedom 

In the aftermath of the postponement, Senegalese security forces, particularly the police, violently attacked journalists covering the demonstrations. Journalists Mor Amar and Absatou Anne were physically assaulted while covering a demonstration in Colobane.

The recent attacks on journalists sparked widespread condemnation from media professionals and associations, including from the Convention des Jeunes Reporters du Sénégal. The Association des Editeurs de la Presse en Ligne and the Coordination of Press Associations expressed their intention to take legal action on behalf of targeted journalists and media outlets. 

On 4 February, Communications Minister Moussa Bocar Thiam revoked the licence of Walf TV, one of the main media outlets covering the protests, accusing it of broadcasting ‘subversive, hateful, and dangerous content’.

The National Audiovisual Regulatory Council (CRNA) has suspended Walf TV’s operations multiple times in recent years. Most recently, in February 2023, a one-week suspension was imposed due to what was deemed ‘irresponsible’ coverage. 

On 9 February, the Coordination of Media Association organised a sit-in in front of Walf TV premises, and security forces used tear gas to disperse the gathering. 

Following a meeting between President Macky Sall, Walf TV CEO Cheikh Niasse, and a delegation of civil society actors, politicians and businessmen, on Sunday, 11 February, the Minister of Communication confirmed that Walf TV’s licence had been restored, referring to the ‘clemency’ of the president.   

Currently, the Senegalese media operates within a legal framework that grants significant authority to the executive, potentially leading to undue interference in the media landscape. This not only undermines the principles of media freedom and freedom of expression but also poses a serious threat to democracy and accountability. Senegal must establish an independent regulatory body to oversee the media industry. 

The government must take immediate action to create a safe environment for journalists to carry out their work without fear of intimidation or violence. This includes ending harassment or censorship of media outlets and providing adequate protection for journalists reporting on sensitive issues. Journalists must be allowed to fulfil their vital role as watchdogs of democracy and independently report on electoral campaigns and processes, including on any irregularities or fraud, ensuring political leaders are accountable.

Maintain connectivity and cease internet shutdowns 

On 4 February, the Ministry of Communication, Telecommunications and Digital Economy ordered the suspension of mobile internet, citing ‘the dissemination of hateful and subversive messages on social media in the context of threats and public disturbances’. On 13 February, the internet was shut down once again, ahead of the subsequently banned Aar Sunu Election protest.

This marks the fifth time in the last few years that the internet has been disabled in Senegal. Previous instances occurred on 5 March 2021 and then in June 2023 and July 2023. 

ARTICLE 19 notes that statements by authorities, such as the one issued on 4 February, do not constitute a legal basis for an internet shutdown.

Civil society organisation Media Defence, together with the Rule of Law Impact Lab at Stanford Law School, have filed a lawsuit before the ECOWAS Court, challenging the 2023 shutdowns. The case argues that ‘Senegal’s internet restrictions breached the applicants’ right to freedom of expression as well as the journalists’ right to work, while significantly stifling media freedom and free expression in Senegal’.

Blocking the internet, especially at times of political unrest, denies populations access to vital sources of information and to news or updates on the ongoing security situation. People are deprived of an important avenue to reach their loved ones, contact emergency services or share and document human rights violations in real time. 

As such, these shutdowns constitute a severe violation of fundamental rights and international standards regarding freedom of expression and access to information, which are protected by the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), both of which Senegal has ratified. 

The ECOWAS Court has ruled on several occasions that internet shutdowns and restrictions on digital communications were unlawful and constituted a violation of freedom of expression.

Several companies — including the largest provider, Orange — have confirmed that they shut off mobile internet access in compliance with the government order issued to them.

Internet Service Providers (ISPs) must prioritise their responsibilities to uphold human rights. According to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, they should respect human rights, which includes a responsibility to prevent or mitigate any risk of infringing on human rights.  Companies should explore all disposable legal avenues to challenge the implementation of internet shutdown requests.


Stop attacks on political opposition 

President Sall’s decision to postpone the election was met with criticism from opposition leaders, who promptly called for nationwide protests. 

On 4 February, several of them were stopped from launching their electoral campaigns, and security forces used tear gas and violence to disperse gatherings. 

Two prominent women politicians, Mimi Touré and Anta Babacar Ngom, were unlawfully detained during a demonstration, and male National Assembly members Guy Marius Sagna and Abass Fall were forcefully apprehended, with Sagna being forcibly removed from his vehicle. All were later released. 

One opposition presidential candidate, Daouda Ndiayewas, was subjected to brutal treatment, resulting in injuries to his face and arms.  

ARTICLE 19 condemns all attacks against journalists and media outlets, as well as  intimidation of or threats against them.


In the current crisis ARTICLE 19 urges the government to: 

  • Immediately announce a new timeline for elections in compliance with the Constitutional Council’s decision.
  • Cease all freedom of expression violations in the context of this crisis, including banning protests and arresting and attacking protesters, attacks against journalists, the media, and civil society, attacks against members of the opposition, and internet shutdowns.
  • Uphold the rights of the media, civil society, and the public to freedom of expression, access to information, and protest, whether before, during or after the elections. These rights are essential for preserving democracy. The government must fulfil its responsibilities to enable access to information and allow the dissemination of information, activities, and public communication related to political events.
  • Implement a regulatory and institutional framework, in line with the Joint Declaration on Freedom of Expression and Elections in the Digital Age, that promotes a free, independent and diverse media, in both the legacy and digital media sectors, which is able to provide voters with access to comprehensive, accurate and reliable information about parties, candidates and the wider electoral process.

Other actors also have a role to play in this crisis and its aftermath:

  • Tech companies should remain transparent and accountable and fulfil their responsibilities to uphold freedom of expression and access to information, especially during political turmoil and during elections.
  • The international community should support and promote democratic values and principles in Senegal, including respect for human rights, freedom of expression, and the rule of law.

Finally, we welcome civil society’s continued monitoring and reporting on the human rights situation in the country, including violations of freedom of expression and the right to peaceful assembly, and their advocacy for accountability and justice.