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The political orientation of Dakar’s newspapers differs greatly, and the way they are produced is in line with one another. A man is informed about the first results of the controversial election between Abdoulaye Wade and Macky Sall in 2012.

Compared to other African countries, the media in Senegal are relatively free, and there are several independent daily newspapers. But for a Swiss reader the reading is rather irritating. This is because a large part of the articles consists of “court reports”: official announcements by the government, reports on street or hospital inaugurations, contributions from a malaria or statistics conference, guest comments from politicians. There are hardly any personal contributions – research, everyday stories, interviews, reportages, investigative reports. The pictures mainly show heads of politicians, athletes and show stars. Ninety percent of the articles refer to Senegal and are often difficult for outsiders to understand, as they are written entirely from an insider’s perspective. The various newspapers differ in their political orientation, but the style is the same.

No criticism of religion

There is no distinction between facts and opinions. Often the journalist falls into the house with the door and begins his text with a tirade, without the reader even understanding what it is all about. “Now tell me one thing at a time,” one would like to shout to him. One gets the impression that journalists hardly manage to take a step back and look at a phenomenon from a distance.

Recently, for example, reports were found in all the newspapers about a “scandal” surrounding a video clip by a private broadcaster about the Islamic Brotherhood of the Mourids. This community and its spiritual leader are very influential in Senegal, also politically. Now the online portal TDK TV had apparently broadcast a critical article about the religious community. The reports revealed that the leader of the Mourids had complained to the Conseil national de régulation de l’audiovisuel (CNRA) about the “denigration”. The president of this supervisory board – who seems to be more of a censorship authority – was quoted extensively. He expressed his deep concern, even shocked at how the feelings of the faithful had been hurt by the video, promised that something like this would never happen again, and demanded an apology from the journalists – which he did promptly.

The problem is that none of the contributions explains exactly what was shown and said in the video. So it is impossible to form one’s own opinion. None of the articles makes the slightest reference to the freedom of the press or the defence of video journalists. Across all the newspapers there is only talk of the “unworthy, provocative and outrageous” contribution. It is pointed out that the film could have led to violence. The CNRA president whispers of “extremely powerful and rich people working against Islam”. It is impossible to find the video on the Internet, and only after some research can a reasonably objective summary be found.

Magical Africa: Ghosts, witches and sacrificial cult

Apparently, the article denounces the exploitation of the Koran disciples and the wealth of the spiritual leaders. This is by no means something new, but a topic that has been discussed in Senegal for years. If one wants to speak of powerful and rich people, then in this case it is obviously about the Mourid leaders, who do not allow critical reporting. The unofficial censorship goes so far that journalists cannot even allow themselves to summarize the content of the video, because otherwise the impression could arise that they are making themselves mean with it.

Emotion instead of information

The second major theme of that day was also about the Mourids, the “Magal” pilgrimage to Touba, the centre of the community, where their leader, Khalif, resides. On the eve of the annual event, the Senegalese President traditionally goes to Touba to pay his respects to the Khalif. The current head of state, Macky Sall, is not very popular with the Mourids. Once, in an interview, he said that the Mourid leaders were only people who were resented. For most Mourids, their clergy are saints. Sall’s predecessor Wade was Mouride himself and honoured the Brotherhood with huge gifts of money. Many Mourids didn’t realize that this was different under Sall. Next year there will be presidential elections, and Sall will make a pilgrimage to Touba to ask the Khalif for support. Apparently there were circles in Touba who wanted to “sabotage” Sall’s visit.

This story also filled pages after pages, with a lot of emotion, depending on whether it was in favour or against the head of state; but how exactly the visit should have been sabotaged did not become clear here either. From the outside one had the impression of a storm in a water glass, of inflated pseudo-news, village gossip, bubble. But this impression sometimes arises when reading Swiss newspapers here in Dakar. Viewed from a distance, it occasionally has a certain comedy, which can cause national excitement in some episodes.

After all, the government-oriented newspaper “Le Soleil” presented itself a little more cosmopolitan on that day and opened with the president’s visit to Riyadh. Many heads of state and business representatives cancelled their participation in the Saudi investment conference because of the Khashoggi affair, but Sall did not allow himself to be dissuaded from the visit. While the media around the world reported on the murder at the Istanbul embassy, the story was not mentioned at all in Le Soleil. Instead, in connection with the Conference of the Long and Latitudes, the newspaper reported on the “Phase II du Plan Sénégal émergent”, which remains a mystery to an outsider even after one and a half pages. Sometimes it is more revealing to pay attention to the unsaid than to the said.

Analytical and classifying texts are also missing. On the occasion of the Mouriden stories one could have written a basic article on laicism or on the relationship between the brotherhoods and the state, on the occasion of the president’s visit to Riyadh a piece on Saudi Arabian influence in Senegal would have been imposed. But even raising such questions may be considered subversive.

Social cohesion goes above all else

The media in Senegal reflect social life. Communication among Senegalese is consensus and harmony oriented. Direct contradiction or criticism is frowned upon, especially towards the elderly or the superior. Differences of opinion are dealt with subtly and diplomatically, the preservation of face and dignity is paramount. This makes living together pleasant, one strives for politeness and friendliness. But in the media world such restraint has a paralyzing effect, and especially in political and religious issues the constant reference to “respect” leads to hypocrisy, subservience and self-censorship.

Even when the newspapers deal with national issues, they give the impression of local journalism. Like a village newspaper, the people described and the readers are virtually identical. There is no need for much explanation, everyone knows what it is all about. This closeness requires a great deal of consideration on the part of the journalists, writing hardly differs from oral communication, there is a kind of nepotism.

This is reminiscent of Ernest Gellner’s thesis that logical and social coherence are inversely proportional. He meant that it is only in modern societies, at the cost of social fragmentation, that the cognitive function is to some extent detached from coexistence, whereas in traditional societies there is great cohesion, but thinking is much more in the service of the community, at the expense of logical analysis.

Despite the skyscrapers in the capital, the Senegalese still form a society guided by tradition. Family and social cohesion are of paramount importance, and religion plays a central role. Communication is still primarily oral; half the population is illiterate, and for the average resident a newspaper is a luxury, even if it costs the equivalent of only about twenty centimes.

In other words, the newspapers – all of which appear in French – are reserved for an urban elite. Journalists earn poorly; many are bribed and write articles of kindness for politicians. Even NGOs often pay journalists something for their presence, for example at conferences, officially as a contribution to transport costs. But de facto such contributions serve as an incentive for positive reporting. Here, too, the cultivation of relationships is ultimately more important than the content. Objectivity – or the effort to achieve it – is perceived as snubbing and cold-blooded. The fact that these mechanisms are so important even in an elite product like the newspaper sheds light on the primacy of the social in economically precarious circumstances and on the often strange interplay between tradition and modernity in the country in general.