Burkina Faso: Radio station banned for criticizing government inaction in Zongo case

April 18, 2000

President Blaise Compaoré
Ouagadougou State House
Burkina Faso

VIA FACSIMILE: 226-30-87-92

Your Excellency:

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) condemns the April 16 closure of Horizon FM, a privately-owned radio station based in Ouagadougou. The station appears to have been closed because it criticized your government for failing to adequately investigate the December 1998 murder of Norbert Zongo, editor of the newspaper L’Indépendant.

The bullet-ridden bodies of Zongo and three other men were found in Zongo’s burned-out vehicle on December 13, 1998, some 50 miles outside Ouagadougou. Before his death, Zongo had been aggressively investigating allegations that Your Excellency’s brother François Compaoré took part in the January 1998 killing of his own chauffeur, David Ouedraogo.

Although Your Excellency’s government has agreed to pay financial compensation to the families of Zongo and the other victims, six presidential guardsmen widely considered suspects in the killings have never been properly investigated. Meanwhile, the judge who charged Franois Compaoré with murder has been removed from the case.

On April 14, the Supreme Council on Information (CSI), a state-operated media supervisory body, accused Horizon FM of violating Burkina Faso’s 1993 Information Code. Among other repressive statutes, the code prescribes immediate closure of media outlets charged with endangering national security or distributing false news.

The CSI’s ruling came just two days after Horizon FM aired an April 12 communiqué from Le Collectif, a coalition of fifty-five opposition parties and human rights groups, calling for “a major rally” in downtown Ouagadougou that same day to protest the lack of progress in investigating Zongo’s murder.

The communiqué also urged Your Excellency’s government to lift the de facto curfew imposed on local university campuses after students clashed with police during Zongo demonstrations earlier that week.

In its ruling against Horizon FM, the CSI stated that the broadcaster had behaved unethically by broadcasting “false and alarmist” information. The CSI charged that Horizon FM was pursuing “dubious political goals likely to cause civil unrest.”

At 9 a.m. on April 16, two days after the CSI ruling, a dozen heavily-armed police invaded the premises of Horizon FM, interrupted the broadcast of “Sondage Démocratique” (Democratic Poll), a weekly political talk show, and sealed off the station’s offices after evicting its personnel.

At the moment of the police raid, the guest on “Sondage Democratique” was Halidou Ouedraogo, the leader of Le Collectif, who harshly condemned the invasion of university campuses by police and alleged police brutality during country-wide Zongo demonstrations the previous week. Although Your Excellency promised that the government would not meddle in the work of the Independent Commission of Inquiry set up to investigate the murders, members of the Paris-based press freedom advocacy group Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF), who had come to Burkina Faso to discuss the Zongo case with the commission, local journalists, and government officials, were expelled from the country in May and September, 1999.

On December 27, 1999, police arrested seven members of Le Collectif on charges of having undermined state security by organizing a November 27 protest rally of 70,000 people calling for a transparent investigation of Zongo’s murder. Among the arrested Le Collectif members were Jean-Claude Medah, head of a local press union, and editor Paulin Yaméogo of the private weekly San Finna, which had published several editorials accusing Your Excellency of complicity in Zongo’s murder. Medah and Yaméogo were released on December 28, after all charges against them had been dropped.

The Zongo case crystallizes the concerns of many in Burkina Faso and the international community about press freedom and the rule of law under Your Excellency’s government. There is overwhelming evidence to suggest that Norbert Zongo was murdered simply for doing his duty as a journalist. This tragedy has been compounded by your government’s unwillingness to tolerate criticism about its handling of the Zongo affair. We urge Your Excellency to ensure that Zongo’s murderers are brought to justice, that there is no further legal harassment of Horizon FM, and that all journalists in Burkina Faso may seek, receive, and broadcast information without fear of reprisals.

We await your comments on this very important matter.


Ann K. Cooper
Executive Director