Murder unsolved, but Burkinabé journalists convicted of defamation

New York, January 23, 2007—A court in the capital, Ouagadougou, convicted two top journalists with the private bi-monthly L’Evénement on criminal defamation charges on Monday in connection with critical stories about the unsolved 1998 murder of editor Norbert Zongo.

Director Germain Nama and editor Ahmed Newton Barry were found guilty of defaming Francois Compaoré, brother of President Blaise Compaoré. Nama and Barry were each sentenced to two-month suspended prison terms, fined 300,000 CFA francs (US$600), and ordered to pay symbolic damages of 1 CFA franc to Compaoré, defense lawyer Bénéwendé Sankara told CPJ. The journalists have filed an appeal but were instructed to publish the ruling in the local papers, Nama told CPJ.

“This verdict sends a message that journalists should stop asking who killed Norbert Zongo. Yet the fact remains that Zongo was killed while investigating alleged government wrongdoing—and no one has been punished,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said. “We call on the appeals court to reverse this conviction, and we urge that authorities concentrate their efforts on bringing the killers of Zongo to justice.”

The defamation case stems from October 2006 articles discussing a report by the Paris-based press freedom group Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF) that raised questions about the role of Compaoré in the Zongo case. CPJ examined the failure of justice in the Zongo murder in a September special report.

The court rejected a request by the state prosecutor to suspend the newspaper for six months, according to Sankara. Dozens of people were denied access to the courtroom, where the two sides engaged in heated arguments, according to local media reports.

No date has been set for the appeal.

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.