TWO YEARS OF CIVIL UNREST SPARKED BY THE 1998 MURDER of a popular journalist have galvanized the independent press and forced President Blaise Compaoré to broaden his government.
On November 12, Compaoré announced a new cabinet that included members of at least 10 opposition parties. The move followed widening protests, including general strikes in April and October, over the government’s failure to prosecute members of the presidential guard who were suspected in the murder of Norbert Zongo, editor of the private newspaper L’Indépendant.
On December 13, 1998, the bullet-ridden bodies of Zongo and three other individuals were found in Zongo’s burned-out vehicle some 50 miles outside the capital, Ouagadougou. Before his death, Zongo had been aggressively investigating allegations that President Compaoré’s brother, François Compaoré, had taken part in the January 1998 torture and murder of his own chauffeur, David Ouedraogo.
On August 21, 2000, a military tribunal in Ouagadougou found three members of the infamous Presidential Guard Regiment (RSP) guilty of Ouedraogo’s murder and sentenced them to between 10 and 20 years in prison. Two other RSP soldiers were acquitted for lack of evidence. The five guardsmen were charged with torturing Ouedraogo to death in January 1998, after accusing him of stealing from his employer. Francois Compaoré had also been charged with “murder and handling a dead body,” but the case was dropped after investigators claimed they had insufficient evidence.
The five guardsmen were also named as “serious suspects” by an independent commission that looked into Zongo’s death. On February 5, 2001, a judge in Ouagadougou brought murder charges against one of the five, Warrant Officer Marcel Kafando.
The Zongo case has had a profound effect on independent journalists and activists in Burkina Faso. After Zongo’s death, “people lost their fear, started a whole movement, and began to question authority, forcing the government to take small steps toward democracy,” Jean Claude Meda, president of the Association des Journalistes du Burkina, told The Washington Post in June.
Facing international isolation because of the Zongo case as well as charges of meddling in elections in neighboring Côte d’Ivoire and illegal arm transfers to rebel groups in Sierra Leone and Angola, the Compaoré administration responded by cracking down on local media.
On April 14, the Supreme Council on Information (CSI), a state-run media supervisory body, accused the private station Horizon FM of violating the 1993 Information Code, under which media outlets charged with endangering national security or distributing false news can be summarily banned. The CSI’s ruling, which was followed by a police raid on Horizon FM, came two days after the popular station aired a communiqué from Le Collectif, a coalition of 55 opposition parties and human rights groups, calling for a mass action to protest the stalled Zongo murder investigation. Accused of broadcasting “false and alarmist” information in pursuit of “dubious political goals likely to cause civil unrest,” Horizon FM was suspended until May 29.
The government’s exaggerated sensitivity to criticism seemed to embolden journalists throughout Burkina Faso. In May, the publishers of the satirical Ouagadougou weekly Journal du Jeudi launched a daily newspaper called 24 Heures, bringing to six the number of dailies published in the country. And in March, the National Press Observatory (ONAP), a watchdog group run entirely by journalists, was founded with a mandate to oversee press ethics.
Heavily armed police sealed the premises of Horizon FM, a private broadcaster based in the capital, Ouagadougou, after the Supreme Council on Information (CSI), a state body, ordered the station closed.
The CSI ruling and subsequent police raid were apparently connected with Horizon FM’s April 12 broadcast of a communiqué from Le Collectif, a coalition of political parties and human rights groups, calling for “a major rally” in downtown Ouagadougou to protest delays in the investigation into the December 1998 murder of Norbert Zongo, editor of the private weekly L’Independant.
The bullet-riddled 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 President Blaise Compaoré’s brother, François Compaoré, took part in the January 1998 killing of his own chauffeur, David Ouedraogo.
The communiqué also urged the government to stop a de facto curfew imposed on local university campuses after a student demonstration about the Zongo case.
On April 14, the CSI charged that Horizon FM’s broadcast was unethical and alarmist. The CSI statement quoted Burkina Faso’s December 1993 Information Code, which calls for immediate closure of a media outlet found guilty of endangering national security or distributing false news.
When the police arrived at Horizon FM at 9 a.m. on April 16, Halidou Ouedraogo, the leader of Le Collectif, was broadcasting a statement that condemned alleged police brutality during a demonstration the previous week. He also reiterated popular sentiment that the government was unwilling to arrest and try soldiers accused of killing Zongo.
CPJ protested the ban on Horizon FM in an April 18 letter to President Compaoré. The station resumed broadcasting on May 29.