Senegal: RSF calls for reform of state aid in light of the debate on media tax debt

While Senegalese Prime Minister Ousmane Sonko has warned media companies to settle their tax debts, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is calling on the government to take up its recommendations, published in the report "Senegal: journalism at a crossroads", to rethink public support for the media.

The comments sound like threats and warnings to media companies. On 9 June, Senegalese Prime Minister Ousmane Sonko repeatedly criticised the press in front of supporters of his party, Pastef (Patriotes africains du Sénégal pour le travail, l'éthique et la fraternité), of which he is still the leader. In particular, he indicated that unpaid taxes by press companies could be treated as embezzlement. Some have already been informed of tax reassessments, while others, such as Walfadjri, have seen their bank accounts blocked by the new authorities. 

While several players in the sector have denounced these statements, they clearly reveal a fundamental problem: the economic sustainability of the media and the necessary reform of public aid to the sector – which is totally opaque as to the amounts allocated to the various media and the criteria used to justify them. 

RSF is calling for urgent reforms to improve the transparency of public subsidies, to promote reliable media and to better regulate media advertising. 

While media companies must meet their legal tax obligations, it is important to move towards ambitious measures for an in-depth reform of state aid to the media. The new authorities have a key role to play against a backdrop of increasing economic insecurity for journalists, the spread of misinformation and a growing crisis of confidence in the media. Confidence in institutions is also at stake. RSF calls on the Senegalese authorities to be more transparent in the allocation of public aid to the press, to encourage greater transparency in media ownership, and to spare no effort to promote and support the production of reliable information.

Sadibou Marong
Director of RSF's Sub-Saharan Africa office

Actors in the media sector reacted strongly to Ousmane Sonko's statements. According to Mamadou Ibra Kane, President of the Senegalese Council of Publishers and Press Distributors (CDEPS), "Ousmane Sonko did not speak as Prime Minister, but as a party leader". He therefore considers that "his opinion is not an official position". He also explained that "the press is currently in a state of virtual bankruptcy. We urge the authorities to write off the press's tax debt". This was a commitment initially made by former president Macky Sall on 18 March, but which was not formalised in an official document.

Among the thirty or so recommendations made in the report Senegal: journalism at a crossroads, RSF calls for the following:  

  • Work towards greater transparency of the media and their funding 

A new relationship of trust between the media and the Senegalese people requires clarification of the conditions under which information is produced. More precise rules relating to the transparency of the media, in particular those broadcasting general information programmes, should be introduced into the law. These should relate in particular to media ownership (for example, an obligation to declare the distribution of the company's capital and its links with the companies owned by its owner(s)). They should also cover the mandatory declaration to the national regulator of any foreign funding received by the media. 

  • Work towards greater transparency in the allocation of public aid to the media 

The funds allocated to each media outlet are not made public, making the allocation opaque. In 2020, the Council of Press Distributors and Publishers of Senegal (CDEPS) and the Convention of Young Reporters of Senegal (CJRS) denounced the "unmentionable criteria" used to allocate the press aid fund. 

  • Prohibit, by law, the possibility of individuals exercising national responsibilities being majority shareholders in a media outlet

For the sake of transparency, and to limit political interference, individuals with prominent public responsibilities (ministers, MPs, senior civil servants, etc.) should no longer be able to be majority shareholders in a media outlet. 

  • Guaranteeing the independence of public service broadcasting and the broadcasting regulator 

The public broadcasting service plays an important role in the Senegalese media landscape. It is up to the public authorities to guarantee its editorial and functional independence, in particular by granting it sufficient multi-year budgetary appropriations in order to preserve this dual independence. The independence of the audiovisual regulatory authority – currently the Conseil national de régulation et de l'audiovisuel (CNRA), which should be replaced by the Haute Autorité de régulation de la communication audiovisuelle (HARCA) – is just as essential. Among other things, it is the guarantor of the integrity of the electoral process by ensuring that the media give a fair amount of airtime to all the political forces putting forward candidates for election. In this respect, the power of the President of the Republic to appoint certain members of the regulator should be repealed. It should be replaced by a transparent and non-discriminatory procedure before Parliament. 

  • Promoting reliable media in the allocation of public aid to the media

To this end, RSF recommends the use of the Journalism Trust Initiative (JTI), an international standard for assessing the quality of news media, initiated by the organisation and designed and developed by 130 international experts in the manner of ISO standards. It includes universally accepted and agreed criteria of excellence for media identification and transparency, professional standards and accountability mechanisms to which news production should be subject. The Senegalese government could encourage the media to enter the JTI certification process in order to promote the production of reliable information. To this end, tax deductions could be granted both to media that go through the certification process (on their audit costs, social security contributions, etc.) and to market players that invest in these certified media (advertisers, sponsorship, subscriptions, etc.). Consideration could be given to increasing public subsidies for media that are JTI certified.

  • Support the creation of a self-regulatory system for advertising 

Advertising resources are essential to the economic sustainability of the media, but they must not have any influence on their editorial line. In the same way that it must keep its distance from political power, the free and independent press must be protected from those who would like to buy influence with their money. It is up to the media, in conjunction with advertisers and communications agencies, to set up a self-regulatory body to ensure compliance with ethical rules. This body, self-financed by contributions from interested parties, would be totally independent of the public authorities and would produce codes of ethics, the application of which would be monitored by a jury of advertising ethics representing the professions on an equal basis.

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Score : 55.44
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