Two years after he was found dead in suspicious circumstances on a deserted road, independent journalist Norbert Zongo continues to be at the centre of the fight against impunity thought to have led to his death.
The latest twist in the two-year struggle that has pitted the authorities against a group of unions, human rights advocates and opposition parties called the Collectif contre l’Impunite (Collective Against Impunity) involved the commemoration of the second anniversary of Zongo’s death.
About 60 African, American and European journalists had planned to travel late last week to Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso’s capital, to take part in one of the main activities of the commemoration: an ‘International Festival on Freedom of Expression and of the Press’ billed for 12-16 December.
Ever since the charred remains of Zongo and three companions were found on 13 December 1998 in his car at Sapouy, some 100 km from Ouagadougou, the Mouvement Burkinabe des Droits de l’Homme (MBDHP - Burkinabe Movement of Human and People’s Rights) and other members of the Collectif contre l’Impunite have been demanding that the perpetrators be found, prosecuted and convicted.
At the time of his killing, Zongo had been investigating the death of the driver of President Blaise Compaore’s younger brother, Francois. A preliminary investigation found that there was enough grounds for suspicion against six presidential guards in the death of the driver, David Ouedraogo.
The 60 journalists attempted to go to Burkina Faso via Ghana to attend the press freedom festival, organized by the MBDHP, the Ghana-based Media Foundation for West Africa and the Norbert Zongo Press Centre. However, they only got as far as the Ghana/Burkina border, where the Burkinabe authorities turned them back.
A top police official confirmed that the journalists had been refused entry but gave no further details. Other senior police officers told the festival’s organizers that they had received instructions “to turn back the festival’s participants ... because the police could not guarantee their safety.”
However, the president of the Burkina Faso Journalists’ Association, Jean-Claude Meda said it was paradoxical that they could not ensure the safety of about 60 persons whereas those who arrived by plane in Ouagadougou numbered more than 60.
Meda said he could not understand how the Burkinabe authorities could deny entry to journalists who had visas or who came from member countries of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which includes Burkina Faso. An ECOWAS national has the right to visit any member state without a visa for 90 days.
Meda said participants wanted Malian President Alpha Konare, who is the chairman of ECOWAS, to know that there were heads of state and countries that made commitments they did not respect.
The authorities had sought to block the commemoration activities in various ways. They confiscated the keys to a room where a colloquium on freedom of expression was to be held.
Security forces occupied the Norbert Zongo press centre as well as other places where commemoration activities were to be held. And when human rights advocates and local and international journalists tried to pay a symbolic visit to the site where Zongo’s body had been found, riot police turned them back.
As a result of the actions of the security forces, the organizers of the commemoration were unable to hold a planned photo exposition, a concert and a procession to the cemetery at Goughin, west of Ouagadougou, where Zongo was buried.
The colloquium had to be held at a restaurant. It resulted in an open letter to Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore and to Konare, in which participants expressed “their strong protests against the many, unacceptable hurdles set up to prevent this important international event”.
The participants also criticized what they described as “the anti-democratic and arbitrary attitude of the Burkinabe authorities”.
Ahead of the anniversary of Zongo’s killing, the authorities had suspended public demonstrations “until further notice”. Interior Minister Djibril Bassolet told members of the Collectif contre l’impunite on 7 December: “I admit it’s a restriction of freedoms, but we deem it necessary to restrict these freedoms.”
The ban on public protests did not prevent students from attempting to demonstrate on 13 December. They set up barricades on Ouagadougou streets and clashed with police in the Burkinabe capital.
During his meeting with the Collectif, Bassolet had accused it of inciting youths to demonstrate and to damage property during their protests. He also told the group: “If you persist in maintaining this tension you will find us in your path.”
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
Hundreds of thousands of readers trust The New Humanitarian each month for quality journalism that contributes to more effective, accountable, and inclusive ways to improve the lives of people affected by crises.
Our award-winning stories inform policymakers and humanitarians, demand accountability and transparency from those meant to help people in need, and provide a platform for conversation and discussion with and among affected and marginalised people.
We’re able to continue doing this thanks to the support of our donors and readers like you who believe in the power of independent journalism. These contributions help keep our journalism free and accessible to all.
Show your support as we build the future of news media by becoming a member of The New Humanitarian.