Burkina Faso’s media freedom under attack


Roch Marc Christian Kaboré

President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré. (Koch/MSC/WikiCommons)

Burkina Faso is supposedly one of Africa’s gems when it comes to press freedom.

In a continent full of countries with extremely poor records on how they treat the media, the Western African state has, traditionally, set a better example. It is placed at number 37 on Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF’s) World Press Freedom Index, sitting between the United Kingdom at 33 and the United States at 44.

But some in the country are raising concerns.

In February two Spanish reporters, David Beriain and Roberto Fraile, and Irishman Rory Young, head of anti-poaching group Chengta Wildlife, were killed in an ambush. The group were filming a documentary highlighting wildlife poaching in the country. Illegal poaching in Burkina Faso is largely facilitated by organised criminal and terror groups who reside mainly in northern Burkina Faso in regions such as the Sahel.

The jihadist group Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wal Muslimeen, an affiliate of al Qaeda, has claimed responsibility for the attack, according to AP. There is no suggestion that the journalists themselves were deliberately targeted but their deaths show the risks those reporting and working in the country face.

Another international journalist working in Burkina Faso, who wishes to remain anonymous, said: “The biggest threat to journalists is kidnapping, death or injury from Islamist terror groups. Second to that, it is local security forces and the state. There is no real threat of violence from them, but detention, deportation or obstruction of work are real concerns.” 

The deaths of Beriain and Fraile seem to represent a watershed moment.

“In Burkina, the threat has certainly gotten worse in recent weeks,” the journalist said. “From March 2020 there was a period of relatively few attacks. I was certainly feeling more emboldened to go out to more remote areas of the countryside to report.”

“[But] since what happened to [these] journalists, as well as a recent spate of major attacks in the last few weeks, that has led me to reconsider where I will travel and for how long.”

Burkina Faso is also facing a displacement crisis. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says “violence [has] led to the displacement of more than one million people in just two years and has left 3.5 million people in need of assistance, a 60 per cent increase from Jan 2020 to Jan 2021”.

In May, journalists were denied access to internally displaced people (IDP) sites, with the government citing the “safety and the dignity” of those in the camps. However, the safety and dignity of the displaced is clearly already under threat, with reports of sexual abuse against female IDPs.

“The threat from the state and security forces has certainly gotten worse,” the ISS report continued. “Two French journalists were quietly deported from the country last month a few days after they arrived.”

In early June, more than 100 people were reported killed by militants in Solhan, north-eastern Burkina Faso. Some 500 people have been killed in this region alone in 2021.

Questioning the reporting of the attack, the government announced 132 dead and reprimanded Radio France International, who reported 160 deaths. 

President of the Association des journalistes du Burkina (AJB) Guézouma Sanogo says recent events are “unprecedented” and things are getting worse.

“Burkina Faso has been fighting terrorism since 2015. Journalists have since been threatened by telephone. Some have left their places of residence. Radio stations have closed in the Sahel. A radio station was even destroyed in the Sahel. But what happened in April 2021 is unprecedented. No journalist had yet been killed in the fight against terrorism in Burkina.”

Sanogo also pointed to increasingly restrictive legislation and says the country’s placement in the RSF index does not reflect the reality in the country.

In 2015, the ABJ accused the government of president Roch Marc Christian Kabore (pictured top)  of interfering in the professional duties of journalists when it issued a directive to state broadcaster RTB to prioritise coverage of the head of state.

Even before that, press freedom has been under attack for decades. 

In 1998, the investigative journalist Norbert Zongo, publishing director of the Independent, was assassinated in the country. “There has so far been no justice in this matter,” says Sanogo.

“RSF’s ranking is undoubtedly based on the laws which adopted in September 2015 and decriminalise press offences. But these laws have instituted very heavy fines for journalists in the range of 500,000 FCFA to 3,000,000 FCFA (£650 to £4,000).”

“Since then, the government has also passed laws criminalising coverage of terrorist attacks by journalists.”

Indeed, in 2019, the National Assembly of Burkina Faso introduced a reform to its penal code which stated that journalists and others can receive up to ten years’ imprisonment for reports that “demoralise” soldiers when reporting any military information regarding troop movements or weapons.

The amendment was introduced “to reduce the threat from terrorism”.

The Burkina Faso-based journalist who spoke to Index does not feel restricted by the country’s legislation.

They said: “The legislation for a free press in Burkina Faso actually looks quite good on the surface.”

“There is a prevailing culture here where journalists often self-censor and avoid certain subjects. Although there is little legislation to limit access to places or subjects, in practice there’s a large number of unwritten rules and obstructions which can land you in trouble if you do not abide by them.”

The deaths of David Beriain and Roberto Fraile may well have been collateral damage in the escalating fight between Burkina Faso’s military and Islamist groups but, even if that is the case, the situation for journalists in the country remains precarious.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][three_column_post title=”You may also like to read” category_id=”581″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Smockey: Burkinabe rapper and activist on European tour despite years of censorship


Music in Exile Fellowship Winner Serge Bambara, aka Smockey (Photo: Elina Kansikas for Index on Censorship)

On 3 March in Belfort, France, Burkinabe rapper and activist Smockey began a two-month long European tour, despite having his studio destroyed twice in recent years. The rapper, whose given name is Serge Bambara, was the inaugural Index on Censorship Music in Exile Fellow in April of the same year. Just three months after the awards, his recording studio, Studio Abazon, was wrecked in a devastating fire.

“All my music files since 2001, including my master tapes and those of my productions and clients, were lost,” Smockey told Index in September 2016. Two years on, it remains unclear how the fire began.

Smockey’s studio was also bombed in September 2015 by armed forces loyal to Burkina Faso’s former president Blaise Compaoré. This was a vengeful attack for his political activism and music critical of Compaoré’s regime.

Despite these aggressive and censorious acts, Smockey continues to record and perform, combating different forms of injustice with each track. As the founder of the grassroots political movement Le Bilai Citoyen, which helped to oust Compaoré, he often promotes the progressive ideas of Burkina Faso’s former socialist leader Thomas Sankara. The Sankarist ideology involves advocating for women’s rights, fighting corruption and imperialism, and upholding the integrity of Burkinabe people, all of which are reflected in Smockey’s lyrics. La Bilai Citoyen translates as the “the citizen’s broom,” which is “a tribute to Thomas Sankara, who organised weekly street-cleaning sessions,” Smockey told the BBC.

In March 2018 Smockey told news website Africa is a Country that Sankara’s image was that of “simplicity, modesty, and integrity … a model for anyone aspiring to manage public property”. He also noted that Sankara had the “courage and determination to build a Burkina Faso of social justice and inclusive development.”

Although the uprising of 2015 was successful in ridding Burkina Faso of an oppressive twenty-seven-year regime, Smockey is not an enthusiastic supporter of the country’s current government led by the progressive former opposition leader Roch Marc Christian Kaboré. Smockey is still a watchdog for human rights violations within his country. “The ones who were our friends before the revolution can be our enemies today,” he told Quartz Africa in July 2016. “We helped them have this power, but we are not friends because we are still sentinels.” For example, his song Tomber la Lame takes aim at widespread Female Genital Mutilation throughout Africa.

Despite multiple attempts to stop his political and artistic expression, Smockey continues to create and share his music globally. Over six weeks he will perform throughout Europe, finishing his tour in Brussels, Belgium, on 14 April.

Smockey’s European Tour Dates and Locations 2018

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Contents: The big squeeze

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The spring issue of Index on Censorship magazine looks at how pressures on free speech are currently coming from many different angles, not just one. Richard Sambrook, former director of global news at the BBC, shows how journalists are in a bind, caught between what advertisers want and what readers want. Also looking at journalists, Duncan Tucker casts his eye on the grave situation in Mexico, where getting to the truth involves working against the government, violent cartels and even coworkers.

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Meanwhile, in the Maldives Zaheena Rasheed shows how a mix of forces conspire against those who want to write anything beyond the usual tourist sale pitch.

But the squeezes on free expression don’t just concern journalists. Annemarie Luck reports from Japan, where penis festivals are popular, but women struggle to discuss their own bodies. Can they find a voice through art and manga? For musician Smockey from Burkina Faso, art should indeed be a way to confront truth and yet that’s not always the case. Expectations run high for him to not be “too political” in his lyrics.

Universities, normally the cradle of free expression, aren’t faring too well either, as two articles show. Jan Fox reports from the USA, where bias response teams are becoming a staple of US collegiate life. In South Africa Fees Must Fall has created a divide between right and left, writes Natasha Joseph, with neither side talking to each other and those in the middle being silenced altogether.

Outside of our special report, Roger Law, creator of the iconic TV satire Spitting Image, talks about the great fun he had with the series back in the day and questions whether the show would be able to air today. Alfonso Lázaro de la Fuente might say no. He was one of the Spanish puppeteers arrested last year for a show that referenced Basque-separatist organisation ETA. In an Index exclusive, he explains what the charges have meant for his personal and professional life.

Want to know how to spot fake news? Then read Reel-time news in which Index’s team of experienced global reporters offer tips on how to spot fake news from a mile/screen away. And don’t miss Martin Rowson‘s fake o’clock news, a hilarious – and sinister – take on what a future of alternative facts would look like.

Index also publish an interview with Turkish journalist Canan Coşkun, whose coworkers are currently in jail, and a pair of writers discuss the situation of free speech in Poland, which is tumbling down global charts following the election of the Law and Justice party. And in the UK, former attorney general Dominic Grieve reveals that MPs are avoiding hard talk in parliament.

Finally, the culture section includes a short story from award-winning French writer Karim Miské and original work from Vyacheslav Huk, a Crimean novelist who is unable to publish work in his mother tongue.

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The Big Squeeze: Freedom of speech under pressure

Fact-filled future? by Rachael Jolley: Journalists need to step up, and produce more detailed news coverage. The public needs it

Between a rock and a hard place, by Duncan Tucker: Mexico’s journalists face threats from cartels, the government and each other

Reality rapped, by Smockey: An award-winning musician from Burkina Faso explains why he won’t water down his lyrics to avoid rocking the boat, despite pressure to do so

Talking a tightrope, by
 Kaya Genç: Despite the crackdown in Turkey, the post-Gezi spirit still survives among the determined

Taking the bait, by Richard Sambrook: The quest for instant gratification online is seriously compromising news reporting 

Dangerous minds, by Natasha Joseph: Rather than creating an alliance, Fees Must Fall is limiting free speech at South Africa’s universities, leaving some early supporters disheartened 

Japan’s Madonna complex, by Annemarie Luck: Japan’s contradictory attitudes include highly sexualised images of women and women not being allowed to talk about sex-related subjects

Squeezed in the closet, by Hannah Leung: Get married and be quiet are the messages China’s LGBT community is given 

Degrees of separation, by Jan Fox: The author investigates units appearing on US campuses suggesting students should report lecturers who they feel are biased

Dying to tell a story, by Sadaf Saaz: The list of what Bangladesh writers cannot talk about is getting longer, but that isn’t stopping some from writing

Trouble in paradise, by Zaheena Rasheed: Behind the image of palm-lined beaches is a side of the Maldives the government doesn’t want you to see

Your cover is shown, by Mark Frary: Tech giants and governments are out to get your data. Soon it might be impossible to remain anonymous 

Stripsearch cartoon, by Martin Rowson: Tune in to the fake o’clock news

Composing battle lines, by Steven Borowiec: Why have South Korean pop stars found themselves caught in crossfire between their country and China?

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We have no time for fear, by Canan Coşkun: A Turkish journalist on the perils of reporting in her country when fellow reporters are imprisoned 

Reel-time news, by Natasha Joseph, Kaya Genç, Jemimah Steinfeld, Duncan Tucker, Abraham T Zere, Raymond Joseph: As “fake news” dominates headlines, Index’s global team of experienced journalists offers tips on how to spot falsehoods before you click and share

Singing from the same hymn sheet, by Suhrith Parthasarathy: Rising Indian nationalism is creating a repressive state where non-conformity is deemed unpatriotic  

Poland: Special Focus, by Wojciech Przybylski, Marcin Król: Poland has gone from free speech hero to villain almost overnight. Two writers discuss the shift and why history is being rewritten 

Shooting from the hip, by Irene Caselli: A new mayor in a Mexican border city believes he will make it less dangerous for journalists  

Silence in the house, by Dominic Grieve: The former UK attorney general says MPs are shying away from tough topics in parliament

Puppet masters, by Roger Law: The creator of iconic TV satire Spitting Image on whether we still have our sense of humour

Drawing the line, by John Power: Australia is debating free speech, one cartoon at a time. Cartoonist Bill Leak interviewed just before he died

Puppet state, by Alfonso Lázaro de la Fuente: A Spanish puppeteer, arrested after terrorism charges related to a show, discusses the impact on his life

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Novel take on terror, by
 Karim Miské: The award-winning crime writer on why fiction and reality overlap. Plus his short story featuring a future where tech rules supreme. Interview by Sally Gimson

The war of the words, by Amira Hanafi: Translated extracts from an American-Egyptian writer’s project to capture the shifting linguistic landscape in Egypt since 2011. Interview by Sally Gimson

Crimean closedown, by Vyacheslav Huk: The Crimean novelist on being unable to publish in his mother tongue and a story of the narrator’s memories. Introduced and translated by Steve Komarnyckyj

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Index around the world, by
 Kieran Etoria-King: What to look out for at Index’s Freedom of Expression Awards 2017, alongside news of other projects that Index has been working on in the last few months 

[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”END NOTE” css=”.vc_custom_1481880278935{margin-right: 0px !important;margin-left: 0px !important;border-bottom-width: 1px !important;padding-top: 15px !important;padding-bottom: 15px !important;border-bottom-color: #455560 !important;border-bottom-style: solid !important;}”][vc_column_text]

Getting print out, by Jemimah Steinfeld: Self-publishing may be a new solution to censorship in China and other countries 

[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”SUBSCRIBE” css=”.vc_custom_1481736449684{margin-right: 0px !important;margin-left: 0px !important;border-bottom-width: 1px !important;padding-bottom: 15px !important;border-bottom-color: #455560 !important;border-bottom-style: solid !important;}”][vc_column_text]Index on Censorship magazine was started in 1972 and remains the only global magazine dedicated to free expression. Past contributors include Samuel Beckett, Gabriel García Marquéz, Nadine Gordimer, Arthur Miller, Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood, and many more.[/vc_column_text][vc_row_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/2″][vc_single_image image=”76572″ img_size=”full”][/vc_column_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/2″][vc_column_text]In print or online. Order a print edition here or take out a digital subscription via Exact Editions.

Copies are also available at the BFI, the Serpentine Gallery, MagCulture, (London), News from Nowhere (Liverpool), Home (Manchester), Calton Books (Glasgow) and on Amazon. Each magazine sale helps Index on Censorship continue its fight for free expression worldwide.

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Smockey: “We would like to trust the justice of our country”


Burkinabe rapper and activist with Le Balai Citoyen, Smockey, became the inaugural Music in Exile Fellow at the Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Awards in April 2016. In July his recording studio, the lionised Studio Abazon, was destroyed in a fire.

“All my music files since 2001, including my master tapes and those of my productions and clients, were lost,” Smockey told Index on Censorship. “I was working on the album of a young rapper named Balla, volume three of my compilation called La Part des Ténèbres and original music for a mobile phone service product – all gone.”

Two months on, it still isn’t clear what caused the blaze. “I don’t have any news about ongoing investigations, so all I know is that anyone could have caused it apart from me,” he said.

Studio Abazon was impossible to insure due to a September 2015 firebomb attack by forces loyal to Burkina Faso’s ousted president, which destroyed the studio. Having recently finished rebuilding in the months before the fire, Smockey said he is obliged to do so again. “But this time I will build it underground to make it more secure.”

Some of Smockey’s friends have launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise funds for the studio and the rapper said he would welcome all the help he can get.

When he last spoke with Index, Smockey was writing tracks for his new album. Plans to record have now been put on hold.

Still, the setback hasn’t put the rapper off performing. He recently played to packed gigs in Switzerland, Germany and Belgium, where he took part in the Esperanzah! music festival. In October he will take the stage in his home country at the Waga Hip Hop Festival. In November he will return to Germany — for appearances in Berlin and Munich — and Switzerland. In December, he will perform in Spain.

Le Balai Citoyen, which Smockey co-founded, is a grassroots political movement which helped bring to an end the three-decade rule of former president Blaise Compaoré. It is currently involved in a new project to build a memorial for the late revolutionary Burkinabe leader, and hero of Smockey’s, Thomas Sankara. To raise funds and awareness for the memorial, Smockey will soon perform at Revolution Square, where up to a million people had gathered to demand Compaore’s resignation in 2014.

“We are just nine months past the insurrection, so now is a good time for the memorial,” Smockey told Index. “Seeing it every day in the city would help put pressure on those in power — those who think they can manipulate us but are mistaken — to do their job.”

Rehabilitating the memory of Sankara – who was overthrown and assassinated in a coup d’état led by Compaoré in 1987 – is, therefore, an important part of bringing about of justice for all affected by the crimes of the former regime, Smockey said.

The former prime minister of Burkina Faso, Luc-Adolphe Tiao, who was appointed by Compaoré, was this month charged and jailed for murder. Smockey welcomes this as a step forward for the country.

“We encourage everyone who is implicated in these crimes to stand before justice in this country, at least because we have a certain sense of honour,” he said. “Burkina Faso literally means the land of men with integrity, so we would like to trust the justice of our country.”

Le Balai Citoyen is now working with a coalition of seven other organisations, collectively called Ditanyè, to tackle the challenges facing the country and to preserve “the positive gains from the revolution,” Smockey added.

Looking forward, he understands the country must have priorities and the courage to define them. “After justice, which is necessary for reconciliation, we have to work on the economic recovery and jobs for young people,” he said. “We want to work now.”

Nominations are now open for 2017 Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Awards. You can make yours here

Winners of the 2016 Freedom of Expression Awards: from left, Farieha Aziz of Bolo Bhi (campaigning), Serge Bambara -- aka "Smockey" (Music in Exile), Murad Subay (arts), Zaina Erhaim (journalism). GreatFire (digital activism), not pictured, is an anonymous collective. Photo: Sean Gallagher for Index on Censorship

Winners of the 2016 Freedom of Expression Awards: from left, Farieha Aziz of Bolo Bhi (campaigning), Serge Bambara — aka “Smockey” (Music in Exile), Murad Subay (arts), Zaina Erhaim (journalism). GreatFire (digital activism), not pictured, is an anonymous collective. Photo: Sean Gallagher for Index on Censorship

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