After a prominent Senegalese journalist was arrested last year on charges of spreading false news, activist Beyna Gueye mounted a small protest, chanting to demand the journalist's release following a meeting with the prime minister.

He was arrested on the spot and sentenced to two months in prison. On the day of his release this week, another journalist was detained, also for "spreading false news".

The coincidence reinforces the view, held by rights defenders and President Macky Sall's opponents, that civil liberties in Senegal are coming under pressure in the run-up to the February 2024 presidential election.

They claim the government has cracked down on demonstrations, used coercive measures against the press, increased the number of arrests and abused the justice system.

The government refutes that there has been any regression and says the law is applied fairly in Senegal, which has a reputation for stability in a region where political turbulence is widespread.

Democracy has been under pressure across West Africa, with military juntas governing neighbours Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso.

Gueye, 24, told AFP he and two other members of a citizen's movement, led by the rapper Abdou Karim Gueye, were arrested in January after participating in a meeting with Prime Minister Amadou Ba about the alleged misuse of Covid-19 funds.

They were picked up after they left the meeting chanting, "Free Pape Ale Niang".

Niang, head of the news website Dakar Matin, is also known as a critic of the president. He was detained in November.

- Old promises -

The case against Niang arose after he wrote about rape charges faced by Senegal's main opposition leader, Ousmane Sonko.

He has been accused, among other things, of "disclosing information likely to harm national defence" and "spreading false news".

Niang was released in January and placed under strict judicial supervision.

Rights activists have been quick to remind President Sall, who was elected in 2012 and again in 2019, that he promised in a 2015 interview never to jail a journalist "for a press offence".

But on Tuesday, another journalist, Pape Ndiaye of the Walf TV news channel, was charged and detained after questioning the independence of the judiciary in the Sonko case.

Sonko's legal affair, and the threat it poses to his presidential candidacy, have been a source of tension in Senegal for two years.

The firebrand politician claims the charges are part of a plot to torpedo his candidacy for the 2024 presidential election.

He also claimed President Sall intends to override the constitution and run for a third term.

On Thursday, Senegal's former prime minister Cheikh Hadjibou Soumare was taken into police custody after writing a letter to President Sall asking if he had financed a French political figure, according to his lawyer.

"We have seen a deterioration in human rights for more than two years in Senegal through several violations of freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, movement and the press," Ousmane Diallo of Amnesty International told AFP.

He decried the arrests, which he said have mostly been of people "close to the opposition and critics of the government".

- Dangerous emojis -

Senegal was ranked 73rd out of 180 countries on the 2022 World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders, down 24 places from the previous year.

The opposition claims the government has almost systematically banned demonstrations.

In February, dozens of people were arrested following clashes, ransacking and looting during a Sonko rally in the city of Mbacke in central Senegal.

The Ministry of Justice told AFP in a written message that bans on demonstrations always have "valid reasons" -- usually to prevent disorder or to protect people and property.

Only 136 out of 4,633 requests for permission to protest -- or about three percent -- were refused in 2022, the ministry said.

Senegal "remains a land of human rights" where the government "protects public freedoms" and "guarantees (their) exercise", it added.

Outhmane Diagne, a social media activist, says he spent five months in detention after resharing a Facebook post showing newspaper headlines that had been edited to reflect badly on the government.

He had shared the post with smiling emojis.

"I am the only man in history convicted of sharing emojis," said Diagne, who has been under judicial supervision since January.