SLS lawsuit contributes to Senegal’s fight for democracy

Senegalese opposition leader Bassirou Diomaye Faye won the presidential election on March 24 — a watershed moment amid concerns about democratic backsliding. Efforts by former President Macky Sall to delay the elections and disqualify challengers drew international scrutiny.

Part of the fight for a free election was a Jan. 31 lawsuit filed by Stanford Law’s Rule of Impact Lab, which alleged that internet shutdowns imposed last summer by the outgoing administration had violated the right to freedom of expression and journalists’ right to work.

The lawsuit was filed with human rights organization Media Defence before the Community Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS Court), on behalf of AfricTivistes, a pan-African network of cyber-activists promoting democracy and the protection of fundamental human rights, and Senegalese journalists Ayoba Faye and Moussa Ngom. 

Major social media platforms were shut down by the Senegalese government from July through August 2023, following widespread demonstrations against the conviction of opposition leader Ousmane Sonko. disqualified him as a presidential candidate. Mobile internet service was completely suspended across some regions.

Sameeha Khan ’25, who spent three months in Senegal last year for an independent study trip, said she recalls experiencing the internet restrictions. “I have videos [where] everything was on fire … and then I wasn’t able to access WhatsApp or TikTok and had no internet for a bit,” she said.

She said that Senegalese friends warned her not to leave the house: “I was just sitting there and was like, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’” 

The lawsuit aimed to obtain interim measures to protect the Senegalese public against future such internet shutdowns, especially during elections and other political events, wrote Abdou Aziz Cissé, who is the advocacy operations assistant at AfricTivistes in a statement to The Daily. 

“We felt it necessary to take the case to the West African Community Court because Internet blackouts before and during the election period would prevent the sharing of information about candidates and the ballot with Senegalese voters,” Cissé added.

SLS professor Amrit Singh, the executive director of the Rule of Impact Lab, said that although Senegal “has been widely regarded as a beacon of democracy in Africa, … it has shown signs of democratic decline.”

For Khan, the internet shutdowns were part of an “authoritarian toolkit” to suppress dissent and constituted “evidence of censorship.”

Singh said she hopes the case will challenge the practices of depriving people of their right to free expression and raise public awareness of it. “Our hope is to work closely with Senegalese civil society groups to analyze systemic challenges to democracy there and to propose avenues for reform,” she said.

The victory of Bassirou Diomaye Faye, who was also a political prisoner and was released alongside Sonko ahead of the election, signals a positive shift toward democracy for the country. Still, the lawsuit filed against the Senegalese government is still pending before the ECOWAS Court, according to Singh.