A year of military rule has shrunk Burkina Faso’s media landscape
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on Burkina Faso’s military junta to stop restricting press freedom and to respect the people’s right to news and information, after the French news magazine Jeune Afrique became the latest media outlet to be suspended since the military seized power in a coup one year ago.
A Paris-based news weekly specialising in Africa, Jeune Afrique became inaccessible in Burkina Faso after the junta’s spokesman, communication minister Rimtalba Jean Emmanuel Ouedraogo, announced on 25 September that all of the magazine’s “means of dissemination” were suspended until further notice following its publication of “mendacious” articles about tension within the armed forces.
“The government will continue to be inflexible with any media that put their pen in the service of interests that are foreign to those of the Burkinabè people,” the spokesman’s statement said.
The head of the military junta, Capt. Ibrahim Traoré, had announced on the national radio and TV broadcaster RTB on 31 August that he would shut down media that “carry enemy propaganda”. And he added: “We are at war, in war there is communication to be done... We want people who will communicate, who will encourage the people to hold on.”
The leader of the coup that the military carried out on 30 September 2022, Traoré no longer hides his desire to impose “patriotic” news coverage, a goal towards which his government has been working for months. The principle is simple: any reporting regarded by the junta as destabilising, especially concerned the security situation, is branded as enemy propaganda. Any talk of setbacks or atrocities by the army now leads to acts of intimidation or suspension.
"One year after Capt. Ibrahim Traoré took power, Burkina Faso is in the dangerous process of being turned into a no-news zone. What with suspending and prosecuting media, deporting foreign reporters, silencing independent and critical voices and subjecting them to intimidation and smear campaigns, the junta is using every kind of press freedom violation to muzzle the media and bring them into line. We urge the government to stop trying to influence news coverage, especially coverage of security issues, and to let journalists work freely in order to respect the people’s right to be informed.
Silencing foreign media
Before silencing Jeune Afrique, which protested its suspension, the junta had silenced other French media and their correspondents. Local broadcasting by Radio France Internationale (RFI) was suspended until further notice in December 2022 on the grounds that it had broadcast a “message intimidating the population that was attributed to a terrorist leader” and that, in a press review, it had repeated a “false report” about Capt. Traoré.
The French TV news channel France 24 has been inaccessible since the end of March, after it quoted some of the written answers that the leader of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), had given to its questions. LCI, another French TV news channel, has been suspended since July for a report about the presence of terrorists in Burkina Faso. Two French journalists, Le Monde’s Sophie Douce and Libération’s Agnès Faivre, were deported in April after investigating the alleged murders of children in a military camp.
And national media
Three Burkinabè media outlets have had problems in recent months. The latest is Radio Oméga, one of the most popular radio stations in the country, which was suspended from 10 August to 11 September for broadcasting an interview with the spokesperson of the Republic Resistance Council (CRR), a group that supports the president who was deposed in neighbouring Niger on 26 July. In a statement announcing its reopening, the government said Radio Oméga had “learned the lessons of this sanction” and requested mediation by the Burkinabè Media Observatory. The radio station disputed the claim, which in reality served as a warning.
Radio Oméga’s suspension was criticised by many media figures, including Inoussa Ouédraogo, president of the steering committee of the Norbert Zongo National Press Centre. After voicing his criticism during a broadcast on the privately-owned TV channel BF1 on 13 August, Ouédraogo was subjected to intimidation. “Individuals climbed on my car to look inside my house,” he said. “Threatening messages were also transmitted to me via other people, including via my wife and my parents.”
The bi-monthly investigative magazine Le Reporter is meanwhile awaiting a court’s ruling in legal proceedings initiated in July by several senior officials. Why? “We revealed a suspicious financial transaction involving the economy ministry, and the customs and tax agencies, in our 15 June issue,” editor Aimé Nabaloum said.
The premises of the newspaper L'Événement were closed and placed under seal for several days in June for alleged non-payment of tax. The seals were lifted following an appeal by the Association of Privately-Owned Press Publishers (SEP), which accused the authorities of “exploiting” a tax dispute “to silence dissenting voices.”
Several French journalists, including Sophie Douce and Agnès Faivre, and Burkinabè journalists, including Radio Oméga’s Lamine Traoré, were subjected to a smear campaign in April organised by the Pan-African Group for Trade and Investment (GPCI), an entity founded and run by government ally Harouna Douamba that has around 40 bogus news sites and Facebook pages.
Douamba was part of a delegation led by foreign minister Olivia Rouamba that visited the Saudi capital, Riyadh, in June, Le Reporter pointed out at the start of September. This is not the first time Douamba has established close ties with an African government. Before turning up in Burkina Faso, he had access to senior officials in the Central African Republic (CAR), above all by means of his association “Aimons notre Afrique” (ANA), which has been behind many disinformation operations.
There have been other indications that the GPCI has developed close links with the president’s office in Burkina Faso. On the evening of 2 August, the Facebook account of the president’s office posted a fake media article. Carrying a pseudonym, Alpha Diallo, as its by-line, the fake article was also posted on L’étoile du Continent, a GPCI-affiliated news site, and on several Facebook pages. The next day, the president’s office apologised for the “operating error.” Then communications director, Nestor Noufé, refused to answer RSF’s questions. After being placed “on leave,” Noufé was replaced as head of communications at the president’s office on 30 August.
In a report published in April entitled What it’s like to be a journalist in the Sahel, RSF voiced concern about the plight of the media in this African region, which it said was in the process of becoming a no-news zone. Burkina Faso used to set an example in the region but respect for press freedom has been declining there for several years. A 2019 amendment to Burkina Faso’s penal code criminalised the dissemination of information on military operations in order to “not undermine troop morale.”