/ 3 May 2024

Media crackdown in Burkina Faso intensifies

Freedom Of Press Prohibition Concept. Microphone With Barbed Wire, 3d Rendering Isolated On White Background
More foreign news outlets are gagged over massacre reports accusing soldiers of killing at least 223 people in revenge attacks in February. (Getty Images)

Burkina Faso has sparked concern by suspending a swathe of international news organisations in recent days for airing accusations of an army massacre of civilians.

Among those named are French newspaper Le Monde, British publication The Guardian, German broadcaster Deutsche Welle and French broadcaster TV5 Monde. 

They were suspended for reporting on a Human Rights Watch (HRW) statement accusing soldiers of killing at least 223 people in revenge attacks on two villages on 25 February.

Other news media named by the communications regulator CSC in an order dated 27 April were French regional newspaper Ouest-France, African website APAnews and the Swiss-based Agence Ecofin. 

Already on Thursday, the CSC announced it had directed internet service providers to suspend access to the BBC, VOA and HRW from Burkinabe territory for two weeks. 

On Monday, Britain and the US issued a statement saying they were “gravely concerned” by reports of the killings and the subsequent media suspensions. 

Referencing the HRW report, London and Washington jointly urged Ouagadougou to “thoroughly investigate these massacres and hold those responsible to account”. 

The Western allies added that they “strongly oppose the suspensions of media outlets” and noted “free and independent media must be permitted to conduct investigations and good-faith reporting without fear of reprisals”. 

The EU expressed its “firm condemnation” of the reported massacre and called on authorities to launch an “independent and impartial” investigation. 

Regarding the media suspensions, the EU said: “Liberty of expression and the right to information are essential elements of the rule of law.” 

Deutsche Welle managing director of programming Nadja Scholz called on Burkinabe authorities to “unblock the website as quickly as possible”. 

The blocking of news coverage “means the people there are being deprived of the important right to independent information”, Scholz said. 

The military rulers of Burkina Faso have dismissed as “baseless” the HRW report on the massacre, which found 56 children were among the dead.

“The killings at Nodin and Soro led to the opening of a legal inquiry,” communications minister Rimtalba Jean Emmanuel Ouedraogo said in a statement late on Saturday.

He expressed his surprise that “while this inquiry is under way to establish the facts and identify the authors, HRW has been able, with boundless imagination, to identify ‘the guilty’ and pronounce its verdict”. 

HRW described the massacre as “among the worst army abuse in Burkina Faso since 2015”.

“These mass killings … appear to be part of a widespread military campaign against civilians accused of collaborating with Islamist armed groups, and may amount to crimes against humanity,” the New York-based group said last Thursday.

Reporters Without Borders condemned what it called “grave and abusive decisions” from the junta. 

In an email, the defender of press freedom said it “reminds the authorities that the publication of general news on the country’s security situation must not be a pretext for the worst attacks recorded against the media in recent months”.

According to the Burkinabe statement, “The media campaign orchestrated around these accusations fully shows the unavowed intention … to discredit our fighting forces.”

“All the allegations of violations and abuses of human rights reported in the framework of the fight against terrorism are systematically subject to investigations” followed by the government and the UN high commissioner for human rights.

The latest suspensions against media come after a series of similar moves, both temporary and indefinite, that have been taken since Captain Ibrahim Traore came to power in September 2022.

Under Traore, the junta has distanced Burkina Faso from France, which ruled the country until 1960, and has already targeted a number of French media outlets. 

The West African nation has been battered by the jihadist insurgency that swept in from neighbouring Mali in 2015.

Thousands of civilians, troops and police have been killed, two million people have fled their homes, and anger within the military at the mounting toll sparked two coups in 2022. — AFP