CPJ calls for charges against Burkinabé journalists to be dropped

New York, January 19, 2007—The Committee to Protect Journalists calls on authorities in Burkina Faso to drop criminal defamation charges against two private newspaper journalists over stories on the unsolved 1998 murder of editor Norbert Zongo. The articles discussed a report by the Paris-based press freedom group Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF) that raised questions about the role of President Blaise Compaoré’s brother in the Zongo case.

Director Germain Nama and editor Ahmed Newton Barry of the private bi-monthly L’Evénement will appear before a court in the capital, Ouagadougou, on Monday, according to defense lawyer Bénéwendé Sankara. They are facing charges that carry a maximum prison sentence of three months and a fine of at least 500,000 CFA francs (US$1,000), he told CPJ.

“These defamation charges are clearly designed to intimidate journalists covering Zongo’s unsolved killing,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said. “We call on the authorities to drop all criminal charges against Germain Nama and Ahmed Newton Barry immediately and to concentrate their resources on solving a real crime: the killing of Norbert Zongo.”

The defamation case stems from a complaint by the president’s brother, Francois Compaoré, over October 2006 articles in L’Evénement. The stories discussed material released by RSF five days earlier at a press conference in Ouagadougou that raised questions about Francois Compaoré’s testimony in the Zongo murder probe.

“We feel that L’Evénement is being singled out over a story carried by several other newspapers. We challenge Compaoré to explain to the judge how the paper’s stories defamed him,” Sankara told CPJ.

Zongo, editor of the weekly L’Indépendant, was shot dead on December 13, 1998, while investigating the brutal murder of François Compaoré’s driver earlier that year.

RSF had called on authorities to reopen the Zongo murder case, saying the final report of an official inquiry commission omitted relevant material at the insistence of government members. The material consisted of passages allegedly highlighting inaccuracies in the testimony of Francois Compaoré and another witness before the commission, according to RSF.

In May 1999, the commission concluded that Zongo was killed because of his investigation into the murder of François Compaoré’s driver. It named six “serious suspects” in the Zongo slaying, including a member of the presidential guard, Marcel Kafando. Kafando was indicted but never tried, and, last summer, a judge dropped all charges against him, citing lack of evidence. No one else has been charged in the Zongo killing, and the case is officially closed.

CPJ examined the Zongo case in a special report released in September.