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Another heavy fine and suspended jail sentence for investigative journalist

(RSF/IFEX) - On 14 April 2011, a Dakar court handed down a three-month suspended jail sentence to Abdou Latif Coulibaly, editor of the weekly "La Gazette", and fined him 10 million CFA francs (15,267 euros) for allegedly defaming a Senegalese businessman close to President Abdoulaye Wade by accusing him of acting fraudulently in his dealings with the government.

Reporters Without Borders condemns the way the Senegalese authorities and several leading figures close to the government are hounding Coulibaly, one of Dakar's most respected journalists. The lawsuits that continue to be brought against him constitute an unacceptable form of harassment, and the suspended prison sentences place him under a permanent threat that is liable to discourage his investigative reporting.

This latest conviction serves as yet another reminder of the need to decriminalize press offences in Senegal. Reporters Without Borders urges the authorities to stop imposing prison sentences, even suspended ones, on journalists. Jail terms are archaic and disproportionate and are never an appropriate response to defamation.

President Wade has in principle given the go-ahead for a reform of Senegal's press law that would replace prison sentences by fines but the office of the National Assembly has sat on it for about eight months. This foot-dragging reflects a lack of political will.

In the 14 April case, Coulibaly was sued by Abbas Jaber, the owner of the peanut-oil processing company Suneor, over articles in two issues of "La Gazette" in May 2010. Describing him as a personal friend of the president, the first article claimed that the government had granted Jaber a "subsidy of 6 billion CFA francs" and had imposed a 25 per cent temporary import tax in order to protect his interests.

In the second issue, Coulibaly accused Jaber of "violating his contractual obligations with the Senegalese state." In a front-page article headlined "Suneor makes off with 16 billion in sale of land" and accompanied by a photo of Jaber, Coulibaly claimed that Jaber had sold "80 per cent of Suneor's land for 165 billion although he was contractually bound not to sell it before 2012."

Coulibaly is clearly being singled out by the Senegalese justice system. In November 2010, he was fined 20 million CFA francs (30,000 euros) and given a one-month suspended sentence in a libel action brought by a presidential adviser.

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