Norbert Zongo’s murder: No justice after 10 years

Ten years ago on Saturday, the bullet-ridden bodies of investigative journalist Norbert Zongo and three friends were found in Zongo’s burned-out car outside the capital of Burkina Faso.

Zongo, editor of the weekly L’Indépendant, was one of the best-known journalists in this landlocked, West African nation dubbed the “Land of Men with Integrity.” He was assassinated on December 13, 1998, while investigating the biggest story at the time: a murder at the presidential palace and criminal allegations against the president’s brother.

Zongo was just one of 24 journalists killed in the line of duty in 1998. He is among the 70 percent of journalists and media workers around the world who die not in crossfire but because they are deliberately targeted for what they have written or aired.

The 10th anniversary of Zongo’s unsolved assassination will pass with his killers still at large; a judge dismissed charges in 2006 against the only suspect in the case. Nevertheless, Zongo’s widow, colleagues, and human rights activists are using the occasion to demand justice.

I spoke this week with Abdoulaye Diallo, who runs the National Press Center named after Zongo in the capital, Ouagadougou. The center, where an eternal lamp burns in the memory of Zongo, has collected more than 7,000 signatures for a petition demanding the reopening of the case, he told me. Diallo expects to collect at least 15,000 signatures to hand to President Blaise Compaoré.

On Saturday morning, Diallo will join Zongo’s widow and three children, along with supporters and activists, to lay a wreath on the grave of the late journalist. They will march through the streets of the capital, ending at Ouagadougou’s Revolutionary Plaza, where a rally will take place. The commemoration will end with a free concert by a dozen local and international artists, including journalist and singer Sams’K le Jah.

The Zongo case remains a sensitive topic for probing journalists and taboo in government circles. Infomercials advocating for the reopening of the case have been running on two private television channels, Canal 3 and Sport-Music TV, but not the government-controlled national broadcaster RTB, according to Diallo. No government representative was expected to take part in the activities, according to local journalists. 

Murder is the ultimate form of censorship: The killing of a prominent journalist like Zongo casts an invisible chill on the media’s ability to probe issues of public interest. Worse, an unsolved journalist’s murder sends the message that the enemies of the press enjoy total impunity. CPJ research has found that in nations worldwide where journalists are murdered, there is justice in less than 15 percent of the cases. CPJ is committed to reversing this trend, and publicly remembering Norbert Zongo this weekend will hopefully put his killing back in the spotlight. Justice remains to be served in Burkina Faso.

Read this blog entry in French.

Click here to read a reflection on Norbert Zongo by independent journalist Tidiane Sy, a former CPJ consultant for West Africa who is based in Dakar, Senegal.