The March 7, 2021 story by Danielle Paquette and Borso Tall in The Washington Post on the events unfolding in Senegal is nothing if not bad journalism. Bad journalism is the result of reporting news shallowly, inaccurately or unfairly and writing a story without verification of the facts from at least two reliable sources.
A good story is not based on heresay or the impressions or opinions of passerbys, onlookers or representatives of groups that pursue specific interests (unless groups with opposing interests are interviewed). This can leave people dangerously uninformed. Worse still is when the journalist uses heresay and opinions, versus verified facts, to put forth a faulty argument.
Democracy has no place for journalistic demagoguery
Democracy is undoubtedly a difficult exercise. But it can never make do with demagoguery. A demagogue simply surfs on the emotions and drives of the masses (think of, for example, the storming of the Capitol in Washington D.C. on January 6, 2021).
Journalists who are adept to “scoops” are a type of demagogue. They churn out articles that report on the latest events without having done the necessary minimum cross-referencing. Opinions are always free. But facts are sacred.
The article by Paquette and Tall published in The Washington Post was not a news report based on facts; it was an opportunistic hidden editorial with a lame argument in the limelight of International Women’s Day. A journalist reporting on events happening in a country that is over 1,600 miles (as the crow flies) from where she is based (Lagos, Nigeria) has no business presenting a thesis of any kind.
The job of a journalist is to report on events using facts, not develop an argument interweaving suppositions with opinions provided by a local junior journalist whose main professional dedication is to advocate for a human rights culture rather than report on the facts of a human rights case (yes, women’s rights are human rights). This is not a criticism of young advocates of human rights. But a journalist reporting on an event should strive to ensure that the information he/she disseminates is fair and accurate, avoids the expression of comment and conjecture as established fact and ensures there is no underlying falsification by distortion, selection or misrepresentation.
What makes for good journalism is ethical, balanced and credible reporting grounded in fact-based reality. In anything concerning a legal case, one expects a journalist to at least wait for the results of the preliminary investigation before making any assertions or reaching any conclusions. It’s the minimum requirement to ensure intellectual honesty. As they should, the actual facts of the “Sonko affair” have left the article in The Washington Post as flat as a popped balloon.
A news report is not an editorial
The headline of the article by Paquette and Tall reads: “Women in Senegal fear unrest silences victims”. The underlying premise is that widespread public dismissal of a woman’s allegations of rape against the opposition leader Ousmane Sonko, amid the fury of unrest resulting from what those protesting see as bad governance, makes it harder for victims of sexual assault to speak out.
That tensions were brewing before the accusation of rape surfaced is undeniable. A protracted curfew and other restrictions to stem the spread of Covid19 and their damaging socio-economic consequences on livelihoods makes people, especially young people, antsy. But this is not unique to Senegal or any other African country.
What is unique to Senegal is the protracted feeling by the Senegalese, and particularly young people, that the government in power since 2012 is more interested in gaining and keeping power, even perhaps vying for a third unconstitutional term, rather than using its power for the benefit of the nation and that it is doing so with the complicity of the French President, Emmanuel Macron. France is suspected by some of wanting to place a stranglehold on the Senegalese government to protect its interests in the country’s recently discovered off-shore oil resources and by others with a more religious bent, of being islamophobic.
Whether true or not, the allegations of rape against the opposition leader Sonko, considered as the champion for youths, are what led to the glass overflowing with disappointment and anger among more than 60% of the country’s population. Young people are fed up with being ignored and want to be heard and listened to before decisions concerning them are made. They want the nation’s leadership to understand that whatever was acceptable 10 or 20 years ago no longer goes. The fact that Sonko was arrested not on charges of rape but on charges of public disorder and incitement to insurrection was seen as the last drop of injustice in a slew of unjust opposition leaders facing what are considered unfair trials. And if there’s one thing Senegalese abhor it’s injustice, wherever it may come from.
The thing is that the allegations of rape are not so clear and present many inconsistencies that point to a non-event. In fact, the official police report has definitely discarded the accusation of rape. The gynecologist who examined the supposed victim on the night of the alleged rape certified that the victim had not had recent sexual relations and that there were no signs of any internal tears indicating forced penetration; evidence “disappeared”; there were numerous contradictions in the victim’s deposition and vis-à-vis the testimony of witnesses.
In addition, the police captain in charge of the investigation resigned. In his letter of resignation, published in Walf Quotidien and Tribune on Friday, March 12, 2021, he alleged fearing for his life and that of his family after the release of the official police report, which concluded that the victim was never raped physically.
The victim was apparently not physically raped. However, she was certainly raped symbolically, in heart and soul, by those who manipulated her and used her as a pawn and instrument of power. By whom, we don’t know…yet. But, as my grandmother used to say: Tout fini par se savoir (Everything comes out in the open sooner or later).
The politics of power over women’s bodies
What the Sonko case in Senegal demonstrates is how political figures, both men and women, use the power they have over others to manipulate public opinion and justice in their favor, instead of using their power productively to empower women through new possibilities or actions free of relationships of domination. Sexual misconduct or rape by powerful men in politics in the United States may have a long history – President Grover Cleveland, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, President Bill Clinton, Illinois Rep. Mel Reynolds, President George H.W. Bush, Rep. Bobby Scott, Chief Justice Roy Moore of Alabama, Pennsylvania Rep. Patrick Meehan, Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, and President Donald Trump – but this is the first such case in Senegal. Sexual discrimination and harassment may be as rampant in the corridors of power in Senegal as it is in the United States, but rape is not.
What has become clear in the “Sonko affair” is that rape, as a concept and as an action for disempowerment, has been politicized by both the victim’s attitude and political actors in the corridors of power interfered to “lead” the accuser. Both have been unjustly treated in the whole affair. While the victim has been dragged through the mud, the supposed aggressor was arrested on bogus claims – public disorder and incitement to insurrection – that are very different to the origin of the entire affair.
The combination of events has lifted the veil over what Dr. Rama Salla Dieng calls a very Senegalese sociocultural characteristic: victimization of the presumed oppressor (Sonko), himself oppressed, and the blaming of an alleged victim. However, the individual outcomes could not be more divergent. While the supposed aggressor’s reputation has been recouped and his social standing has been reinforced, the victim has been sexually debased in the popular imagination and her life has been ruined. Accused of being at the heart of a political plot, the majority of those protesting see her as a symbol of the persecutor of all Senegalese – what they see as a presidentialist regime. Derived from a presidential regime, in which the chief of state operates within a framework of strict separation of executive, legislative and judicial powers, a presidentialist regime has a disequilibrium between those three powers and is characterized by a hegemony of power where the chief of state is also the head of government. The victim’s body symbolizes dirty politics.
The arenas of Africa’s political battles
Beyond the individual repercussions of the case and regardless of who is guilty of what, this case, as Salla Dieng writes, is also allegoric of how female victims of rape and sexual violence are treated and stigmatized in a country that remains desperately masculine and in which the body of women continues being an arena for political battles. At the same time, this particular case has also brought to the forefront another arena for political battles: the youth bulge.
Indeed, the protests in Senegal were an expression of one of the biggest challenges facing political governance throughout Africa: how to harness the energy and drive of a youthful population. The events are especially significant for Senegal, a country that has a reputation of being the most stable electoral democracy in West Africa. However, despite having undergone two peaceful transfers of power between rival parties since 2000, youths, especially young men, are unfortunately seen more as an enemy of the state than as an anchor of the future.
Although culturally youths are taught to respect their elders and humbly speak out, when they speak and speak and speak and are not listened to, protesting is seen as the only way to be heard. It’s true that protests are a fundamental democratic right and that doing so with violence is undemocratic. But when those protesting are insulted, characterized as a terrorist mass in echo of the non-African countries pushing forward the “War on Terror”, it’s a sign that a nascent political crisis has become a full-blown social crisis.
Sonko may have “federated” youth discontentment. The prolonged effects of economic hardship, unemployment, Covid-induced restrictions on freedom, and friends drowned at sea as they tried to reach Europe may have sparked the virulence behind that discontentment. But it is the unheard voices of youths, those thousands of voices lost in the crosswinds of politics, that rose up as one to demand they not only be heard but also listened to. And heard they were, by the leaders of Muslim religious associations and of the Church who met and made use of their good offices to mediate in the conflict. As a result, and after a visit from the emissary of the Khalif General of the Mourides, the Movement for the Defense of Democracy (M2D) agreed to call off the protest planned for Saturday, March 13, and Sonko agreed to respect a “cease fire”.
President Macky Sall was right not to make any declarations in a private affair, and the speech he did finally make was an empathetically soothing one full of humility. Contrary to what was heard throughout America after January 6, 2021, not a single word was said to debase protestors. Although the Senegalese President’s speech was admired by many and raised suspicions in some, as writes Senegalese journalist Sidy Diop in Le Soleil, he spoke like a true statesman. His message: I hear you.
Three clear messages from youths in Senegal
A bitter peace has been reached between the opposition and the party in power. The question left hanging in the air is whether it’s sincere or one more ploy in the power play taking a run-up to the next presidential election in 2024.
Whatever the answer is, the bravery of a youth must be recognized. Writing letters to the President just won’t cut it. Paraphrasing Salla Dieng, young people only have the street to call out what they consider clay-footed leaders who don’t listen and, because they’re deaf, demonize young people and their demands.
Even if admiration has given way to regret, three things came through loud and clear: young people do have a political conscience, they do care about their country, and they will fight for justice. The protests were an invitation, albeit an inappropriately violent one, to the President for dialogue. The President heard it and acknowledged it. The opposition leader Sonko accepted a truce. Now it’s up to the parties to carry through, without any interference from outside parties seeking to further their own interests.
Good journalism does no harm
The two authors, Paquette and Tall, of the article “Women in Senegal fear unrest silences victims” may have thought they were writing in service of women’s rights. But they ended up serving women badly. Indeed, the article published seems more a stretched interpretation of the events that unfolded in Senegal in an attempt to find some type of significant link to International Women’s Day, celebrated on March 8, one day after the publication of the article.
The problem is that this forced attempt to link popular unrest to the right of a woman to speak out against an aggressor obfuscates the real significance of the arrest of Sonko for women in Senegal: how young girls and their bodies can be used as pawns and bait by powerful men and women in the political arena to protect their own families and entourage. But to insinuate that this is habitual in Senegalese politics is not only wrong, it is baseless.
It is clear that Danielle Paquette, despite being The Washington Posts’ West Africa bureau chief since 2019, knows very little about the socio-political and cultural environment of Senegal. The article is plain bad journalism. It actually harms the fight for women’s rights: every time a girl or woman is sexually assaulted by someone in power, it will be difficult to believe her. The saddest part of it is that the life of a young and innocent girl has been destroyed. This is the real fear that the “Sonko affair” is silencing.
The journalists’ tendentious interpretation of the impact of the recent unrest in Senegal and the indirect conclusions drawn by the authors reveals defunct rudimentary scruples about checking facts and information. With International Women’s Day around the corner, the article sought to exploit the legitimate grief and grievance of women, rather than report reliably on what happened and what was happening. By telling the story in a way that puts the reporters’ opinion front and center, Paquette and Tall worked against the rights of women and, for that matter, against democratic processes, in Senegal. Opinion columns have different standards, and that's why they're located on the Editorial Page.
Curiously enough, no follow-up article has been published in print version of The Washington Post to put the record straight. The latest online article, a March 15 piece by Burleigh Hendrickson, an assistant professor of French & Francophone studies at Penn State University, takes a more benign approach. It is also identified as an opinion piece (Perspectives). But like most pieces on Africa, it has unremitting somber undertones. It raises understandable concerns for the American reader regarding the breakdown of democracy in Senegal. But these concerns do not reflect the reality of the Senegalese who are on the ground and have lived through these and previous protests. The Senegalese know how to get a grip on things and pull together for the good of the country without doubting the power of their democracy even if not always the use of power by their leaders.
Unfortunately, in what concerns Africa, it seems that violence is a bigger scoop than peace, and the sexually-charged abuse of power is more newsworthy than justice and statesmanship. To Africa-watchers and believers, there is a clear double standard for American journalistic quality, integrity, and ethics when it comes to reporting on the continent. It’s enough to make us want to scream. Let’s hope The Washington Post pays more attention to what their correspondents in Africa submit in future coverage.
This opinion piece was co-authored by Mr. Mame Seingou Diop, a Senegalese sociologist, teacher and social mediator and project coordinator for Upboost LLC.
Astrid Ruiz Thierry, Principal, Upboost LLC