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Residents protest over the coup in Ouagadougou in September. With many radio stations silenced during the unrest, pirate station Radio Resistance was a vital resource for news. (Reuters/Joe Penney)

Resistance over the airwaves: Pirate station's vital role during Burkina Faso coup

By Peter Nkanga/CPJ West Africa Representative on October 6, 2015 3:45 PM ET

Radio Resistance was a pirate radio station born out of necessity. During Burkina Faso's short-lived military coup last month, in which many local radio stations were forced off air, it kept citizens informed and gave them the courage to stand up against the attempted takeover, Burkinabe journalists said.

The unrest in Burkina Faso began on September 16 when soldiers loyal to former president Blaise Compaoré, who was ousted in October last year after 27 years in power, took interim government President Michel Kafando, Prime Minister Yacouba Isaac Zida, and others hostage in the capital Ouagadougou, according to news reports.

At the same time, more than 100 journalists and press freedom advocates from 35 countries were assembled in the capital for the International Festival of Freedom of Expression and the Press to discuss the media's role during political changes. Peter Quaqua, president of the West African Journalists Association, who was at the event, recollected the mood when delegates heard that the elite presidential guard, made up of about 1,300 soldiers, had staged a coup, and he described how the press was targeted.

"When the guys made the coup they ran to the private radio station and shut it down. At the same time they went to the state radio to announce that they had taken over," Quaqua said in an interview published in independent Liberian paper FrontPageAfrica on September 25. "They know that the media plays a very important role in keeping the society together. When these kinds of things happen it is almost normal for people who take over to limit speech and freedom."

Local journalists with whom I spoke said that in the midst of uncertainty during the brief takeover, the people turned to the media for information. However, the renegade presidential guard had taken over Radio Television du Burkina, the state-owned national broadcaster, and sent soldiers to stop privately owned media outlets in Ouagadougou from broadcasting, news reports said.

"We were live on radio... I looked through the studio's window and saw three [presidential guard soldiers]... They were holding something in black nylon which visibly contained fuel," said Albert Nagréongo, editor-in-chief of the independent Omega radio station, according to media reports. In his account of the September 16 raid, which was later posted in French to Twitter, Nagréongo added, "They asked us to stop broadcasting or they would start a fire. We obeyed... They shot in the air and set fire to some motorcycles parked at the station's entrance."

Soumaila Rabo, editor-in-chief of the independent Radio Savane FM, told me his station stopped broadcasting after the national union of independent broadcasters, known in French as UNALFA, called on member stations to cease broadcasting from September 17. The union's president, Charlemagne Abissi, told me he gave the order to try to prevent further attacks on journalists and news outlets. Also on September 17, the presidential guard announced on national television that General Gilbert Diendéré, who had been Compaoré's chief of staff, would head the newly formed National Council for Democracy government. With immediate effect, the interim government was dissolved, a curfew was imposed, and all borders were closed.

During the coup, local television stations aired international news on Hungary, the U.S., Chile, and Australia, said Macharia Gaitho, a veteran journalist for the Nation Media Group, who was among the international journalism festival delegates who were stranded in their hotel. In his account of being caught up in the coup, Gaitho wrote, "Instead of the local TV stations giving live updates of traumatic moments, they restrict themselves to occasional rebroadcasts of the military statement... Nothing from the streets of Ouagadougou."

In opposition to the coup, Moumina Cheriff Sy, a journalist who was elected president of the National Transitional Council, Burkina Faso's interim legislature, released a statement declaring himself interim head of state, according to news reports. In a joint statement, journalist groups condemned the coup and denounced attacks on the press, according to news reports.

With radio--which has the widest reach in the country--also silenced, journalists and civil society activists set up Radio Resistance, Abissi, who spearheaded the formation of the pirate station, told me. In its first broadcast on September 18, Radio Resistance played a speech credited to Sy, which called on the Burkinabe people to march against the coup. Those behind the coup responded with a clampdown of known news outlets in an attempt to unmask the team behind Radio Resistance and prevent it from broadcasting, Abissi said.

Newspapers are sold on the streets of Ouagadougou in September. News outlets silenced during the failed coup are reporting again, local journalists say. (Reuters/Joe Penney)

On the night of September 18, soldiers raided the premises of Radio Savane, beat and tied up the security guard, and removed equipment including transmitters and computers, Rabo told me. "Our security guard said the soldiers wanted to burn the station but thought against it for fear of a public uprising," he said.

The renegade soldiers shot into the premises of Mogtedo and Goudri radio stations, set alight Radio Laafi in Zorgho, about 100km from Ouagadougou, threatened, intimidated and physically assaulted journalists, and destroyed and confiscated equipment belonging to journalists and radio stations, according to news reports and Abissi, who said the soldiers came to his house on September 19 and seized Radio Resistance transmitters.

But by this time, Rabo told me, Radio Resistance had already been effective. "I went around and everyone was listening to the station because there was no other means of getting information. It made the difference." Guezouma Sanogo, president of Burkina Faso's association of journalists, added: "Radio Resistance was instrumental in informing the public, but also uniting the people."

In a joint statement on September 19, Burkinabe press unions listed more than a dozen attacks against the press during the unrest, including the shooting of a correspondent for the daily Sidwaya newspaper and surveillance of journalists and media managers. Sanogo told me the correspondent, who has not been named, survived, and that the unions are compiling a comprehensive list of attacks.

Abissi said the response to Radio Resistance's call to resist the coup was far-reaching, with people flooding the streets and setting up barricades. On September 23, Diendéré relinquished power, leading to the reinstatement of Kafando as interim president. At least 10 people were killed and more than 100 were injured during the unrest, according to reports. Members of the presidential guard who had refused to disarm surrendered after the regular army launched an attack on September 29, according to reports.

Radio Resistance has finished broadcasting for now, according to the local journalists I spoke with and news reports. Basidou Kinda, an investigative journalist with the independent paper L'Evenement, told me other stations are back on air but if it hadn't been for Radio Resistance the outcome could have been different. "[Radio Resistance] became the official radio of the country," he said. "Without the station, a resolution would not have come this quick."

Abissi added, "One lesson learned is the role of media and civil society in leading the people to build a better society. We cannot relent in safeguarding our country's democratic gains. The media cannot relent in its duties to the nation. And that is what Radio Resistance stood for."


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