Attacks on the Press 2001: Burkina Faso

The people of Burkina Faso have grown used to President Blaise Compaoré’s broken promises to respect the law. So on March 30, after the president opened the “National Day of Forgiveness” with an extraordinary apology for all crimes committed by his government, hundreds of people took to the streets to demand justice, not apologies.

The demonstrations included local journalists with grievances ranging from the unsolved December 1998 murder of editor Norbert Zongo to yet another empty Compaoré promise to reform the country’s press laws.

The president’s act of contrition was apparently inspired by the results of an inquiry into official crimes committed since Compaoré shot his way to power more than 13 years ago. In late February, a government-appointed council of elders called on the authorities to soothe public anger that had been mounting since the murder of Zongo, editor of L’independant.

The council of elders cited over 170 specific crimes allegedly perpetrated by the regime, and asked President Compaoré to “assume all responsibility on behalf of the state” and ask the nation for forgiveness.

“At this solemn moment, in my position as president of Burkina Faso, I ask for forgiveness and express deep regret for torture, crimes, injustices, bullying and other wrongs,” Compaoré told his countrymen. The president announced the creation of a “compensation fund” for families of victims of political violence. He also pledged to make March 30 an annual “day of remembrance, human rights and promotion of democracy.”

Critics dismissed the apology as a government bid to evade its responsibilities under the law, and events last year appeared to validate this view. In early February, Warrant Officer Marcel Kafando of the infamous Presidential Guard Regiment (RSP) was indicted for the murder of Zongo. But the indictment only prompted further claims that the regime was obstructing justice.

In January, another RSP serviceman considered a serious suspect in the Zongo case was found dead in a prison cell where he was serving a 20-year term for the murder of David Ouedraogo, the chauffeur of President Compaoré’s brother François. Ouedraogo was tortured to death in 1998 for allegedly stealing money from his employer.

Zongo was investigating the chauffeur’s death until December 13, 1998, when unknown individuals fired several automatic rifle bursts at his car, killing him and three passengers.

Authorities said the RSP prisoner died “after a long illness” but did not elaborate.

When asked to disclose the evidence against Warrant Officer Kafando, the state prosecutor said that the indictment resulted from “contradictions noted in [Kafando’s] alibi for December 12 and 13 of 1998.” Few believed the prosecutor.

On April 30, police raided the National Press Center in the capital, Ouagadougou, and arrested a dozen journalists, students, and others who had gathered to reflect on challenges posed by new developments in the Zongo affair. They were released a few hours later.

CPJ protested delays in the Zongo case in a March 29 letter to President Compaoré. On April 4, CPJ released a detailed account of the Zongo affair, called  “Refuse To Forget.

In some ways, the Zongo controversy has helped Burkina Faso’s embattled press. In a joint statement released on May 3, World Press Freedom Day, the Burkina Faso Association of Journalists (AJB), the Media Freedom League, the Movement for Human and People’s Rights (MBDHP) and the National Media Observatory (ONAP) noted that “repression against the media has become less barbaric” in Burkina Faso ever since Zongo’s death.

If the situation had indeed improved, the statement added, it was thanks to the determination of journalists and others in the democracy and human rights movement, and not to the good will of the Compaoré regime.