Over three years after the murder on 13 December 1998 of Norbert Zongo, managing editor of the weekly L’Indépendant, the inquiry is still at a virtual standstill. The people behind this murder have not had to account for their deed, which reinforces the feeling that justice in Burkina Faso functions on two levels. Despite the authorities’ statements to the contrary, impunity still reigns in "the country of honest men". The president’s brother, François Compaoré, largely implicated in this affair, was heard by the judge examining the case for the first time in January 2001, over two years after the murder.
The authorities still claim that the inquiry will be carried through. Multiple declarations are made by officials to reassure the local press and international community. In May the state president, Blaise Compaoré, said that "the case is still open and will go through to the end".
On 12 April the prime minister, Ernest Yonli, urged journalists to "be more aware of their responsibility in society". "It is necessary to pull yourselves together so that an excess of freedom does not smother freedom [...] The government will continue to guarantee press freedom" he added.
A few days earlier L’Indépendant received the Press and Democracy prize awarded by the Swiss La Tribune de Genève. Every year this prize is awarded to a publication in French-speaking Africa which has distinguished itself by its commitment to human rights and democracy.
One journalist killed
On the evening of 21 October 2001, 23-year-old Michel Congo, a journalism student working for the privately-owned daily 24 Heures, was killed at his home. The journalist was allegedly shot and stabbed to death. The assailant(s) reportedly stole only a black and white television set. The police and local human rights organisations immediately put forward a variety of assumptions, from foul crime to a political murder. Since then the Burkina Faso press and several associations have called for the creation of an independent commission of inquiry. On 1 January 2002 the motives for this murder were still unknown. Nothing allows us to assert that this act was related to the journalist’s professional activities.
New information on a journalist killed before 2001
On 17 January 2001 François Compaoré, the state president’s brother, was heard by Wenceslas Ilboudo, the judge responsible for investigating the death of journalist Norbert Zongo.
Two weeks later, on 2 February, warrant officer Marcel Kafando was charged with "murder" and "arson" by the state prosecutor, Abdoulaye Barry, in this case. Marcel Kafando was one of the six "serious suspects", all members of the presidential guard (RSP) implicated by the independent commission of inquiry set up by the Burkina Faso government after the death of Norbert Zongo.
On the occasion of the 17th Pan-African film festival (FESPACO) in early March in Ouagadougou, two films on Norbert Zongo were censured by the organisers. The documentaries had initially been scheduled in the FESPACO official selection. Both were about the involvement of the political authorities and traditional chiefs in the journalist’s murder.
At the end of the month Norbert Zongo’s family announced its refusal to participate in national pardon day scheduled by the authorities for 30 March. According to the family, this day "is not only devoid of justice, it is also indecently based on lies".
On 10 October, Reporters Without Borders asked the French state prosecutor to launch an inquiry on the Burkina Faso president then on a visit to France. The organisation wanted the French courts to examine Blaise Compaoré’s responsibility in acts of torture committed by members of the presidential guard. Since the 1984 Convention against Torture is incorporated into French law, French courts are competent to prosecute persons responsible for acts of torture even if they were not committed on French territory nor against one of its citizens. On 15 October Reporters Without Borders militants distributed leaflets headed "Norbert Zongo, journalist murdered. No to impunity in Burkina Faso" in front of the French Socialist Party headquarters as Blaise Compaoré arrived to meet the national secretary of the party. Two militants were immobilized by plainclothes policemen and thrown to the ground. They then had teargas sprayed in their faces. The other members of the organisation were arrested by the police. On 15 November a Paris court rejected the Reporters Without Borders complaint.
In December the press freedom organisation expressed its concern as to the deteriorating health of warrant officer Marcel Kafando, the only person charged in this case, presently detained in the Ouagadougou jail. This officer of the presidential guard is a key witness in the investigation under way. His death could lead to closure of the file due to a lack of evidence, thus making it impossible to get to those at the top of the hierarchy, responsible for the murder.
Norbert Zongo was managing editor of the weekly L’Indépendant. His charred remains were found in his car, along with three companions, on 13 December 1998. This date marked the beginning of wave of protest throughout the country. Since then dozens of demonstrations have taken place in Ouagadougou and the other major towns in the country. An independent commission of inquiry set up on the initiative of the authorities to "determine the causes of the death" of journalist Norbert Zongo, submitted its report to the Burkina Faso prime minister on 7 May 1999. After hearing over 200 persons the commission concluded that, "the motives for this quadruple murder [...], need to be sought in relation to the investigations carried out for a number of years by the journalist, and especially his most recent investigations into the death of David Ouedraogo, the driver of François Compaoré, adviser to the president [his brother]". The report also gave the name of six "serious suspects" in this affair, all of whom were members of the presidential guard.
Two journalists arrested
Germain Nama and Newton Ahmed Barry, two journalists with the weekly L’Indépendant, were summoned to the investigation department of the Ouagadougou gendarmerie on 8 January 2001. On 9 December 2000 the two men had gone to Boussé, north-west of the capital, where they had found a bullet in the bark of a tree. On their return to Ouagadougou they had informed the state prosecutor of their discovery and had given the bullet to him. On the day they were summoned to the gendarmerie they were questioned and taken to the place of the incident. They were then taken back to the capital and held in detention until noon the following day.
Two journalists threatened
Aboubakar Zida, known as Sidnaaba, journalist with the privately-owned radio station Savane FM, was threatened by soldiers several times during the year. He is known for his press reviews in More, the local language. "If he translates, he’ll be burned", warned one of the soldiers, under cover of anonymity.
In October Sy Cheriff, managing editor of the publication Bendré, received telephone threats by soldiers. The weekly had published an article criticising a raid by soldiers in the Pissy district of Ouagadougou to avenge one of their colleagues who had been beaten up during an altercation with the inhabitants.
Pressure and obstruction
About 100 policemen from the flying squad raided the Norbert Zongo national press centre on 26 April 2001. About a dozen people were arrested, including a journalist and students. They were all released, one by one, during the day without any explanation.
On 11 July Liermé Some, managing editor of the weekly L’Indépendant, was summoned to the criminal investigation department where he was interrogated from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and again from 4 to 6 p.m. He was accused of publishing a story headed "The day Blaise Compaoré nearly lost power" about dissatisfaction among soldiers who had not received their bonuses and had planned to join a march on 30 June, organised by the Collective Against Impunity. The idea was allegedly to take the prime minister hostage until "their demands had been met".
François Compaoré the President’s brother has been denounced as a predator of press freedom by Reporters Without Borders