Attacks on the Press 1999: Burkina Faso

President Blaise Compaoré seized power in 1987 before seeking legitimacy through the ballot box in 1991 and again in 1998. But his regime still draws much of its authority from the army, especially from the infamous Presidential Guard Regiment (RSP), which local independent journalists blamed for several extrajudicial killings last year. It remains dangerous to criticize the RSP and other key pro-Compaoré institutions. As a result, many independent reporters engage in self-censorship.

The ghost of Norbert Zongo has haunted the Burkina Faso media scene since the journalist’s death in late 1998. The bullet-ridden bodies of Zongo, editor of the private newspaper L’Indépendant, and three other individuals were found in Zongo’s burned-out vehicle on December 13, some 50 miles outside the capital, Ouagadougou. Before his death, Zongo had been aggressively investigating allegations that President Compaoré’s brother Franois Compaoré took part in the January 1998 killing of his own chauffeur, David Ouedraogo.

President Compaoré has promised that his government will not meddle in the work of the Independent Commission of Inquiry, set up to investigate the murders. But even though provisions of the 1990 Information Code that gave the state legal powers to intimidate the press were removed in December 1993, the regime’s old, autocratic habits persist. Members of the Paris-based press freedom advocacy group Reporters Sans Frontières were expelled from Burkina Faso in May and September while attempting to gauge the progress of the Zongo investigation. And in early December, the Compaoré regime charged seven members of Le Collectif, a coalition of local independent journalists and human-rights advocates, with having undermined state security by organizing a November 27 demonstration of 70,000 people calling for clarity in the Zongo investigation.

The journalist members of Le Collectif included Jean-Claude Medah, head of a local press union, and editor Paulin Yameogo of the private weekly San Finna, who published several editorials this year blaming the presi-dential family for Zongo’s murder. All charges against members of Le Collectif were dropped on December 28.

Although the government has agreed to pay financial compensation to the families of Zongo and the other victims, six presidential guardsmen considered serious suspects in the killings have not yet been brought to book. Meanwhile, the judge who charged Franois Compaoré with murder was removed from the case. After the civilian court indicted three senior military officials attached to the RSP, the case was transferred to a military tribunal. But no trial date had been set by year’s end, and there were also constitutional objections to trying the civilian Compaoré in a military court.

Along with like-minded media from neighboring Francophone countries, the local independent press continued to speak out about the Zongo murder. In December, one local newspaper marked the investigation’s one-year anniversary by publishing a photograph of Zongo’s charred vehicle with the caption “To the president of Burkina Faso: You made promises about [finding] the killers of journalist Norbert Zongo. Did they go up in smoke too?”

September 15
Paulin Yameogo, San Finna HARASSED

On the evening of September 15, Yameogo, editor of the opposition weekly San Finna and an active member of the Group of February Fourteenth, a coalition of nine opposition parties, was summoned to the Office of State Security and arrested. He was informally charged with conspiracy to overthrow the government of President Blaise Compaoré.

Yameogo’s detention came two days after he wrote a critical editorial in the September 13 issue of San Finna entitled “When Blaise Compaoré Rolls Out the Red Carpet for Putschists.” Yameogo’s article accused President Compaoré of failing to solve the country’s problems. He argued that a coup was possible because of the current wave of strikes and the popular perception that government officials could commit crimes with impunity.

Yameogo was set free less than 24 hours later.

December 1
Boureima Sigue, Le Pays HARASSED

Police detained Sigue, publisher of the private daily Le Pays, for questioning in connection with his publication of a statement by a group of opposition political parties.

The statement called for “police and security services to refrain from using the terrorist methods of the minority who cling to power.” No charges were pressed against Sigue, who was released three hours later.

December 1
Paulin Yameogo, San Finna IMPRISONED

Police officers arrested Yameogo, director of the privately owned weekly San Finna, at the paper’s offices in Ouagadougou. He was immediately taken into custody at the headquarters of the National Security Agency.

Yameogo was detained after a late- November San Finna issue featured the photograph of a man’s body bearing marks of torture. The man, Ilboudou Hamidou, claimed that he was tortured by members of the infamous Presidential Guards Regiment (RSP) during a December 1997 arrest. The incriminating picture, freely sold in the streets of the capital, was published by San Finna with Hamidou’s consent.

Hamidou also claimed to have been detained together with David Ouedraogo, President Blaise Compaoré’s brother’s chauffeur, who was tortured to death in the presidential offices in January 1998.

In his San Finna editorial, Yameogo called on the government to speed up the inquiry into Zongo’s death and asked that criminal officials or presidential family members be brought to book. In response, he was charged with publishing seditious material and spreading false news. Unable to prove these charges, authorities released Yameogo unconditionally on the afternoon of December 3.