Investigations And Interrogations–Risk As A Job Requirement

Norbert Zongo is emerging as the untold story of this revolution. Media coverage of the uprising against the Blaise Campaoré regime focused on the way images, words and ideas of Burkina Faso’s young, revolutionary, Marxist leader, Thomas Sankara, continued to inform and influence the younger generation of Burkinabé. It was Sankara’s image that you could see in street murals, and on paintings, posters, t-shirts, and books on sale in street side shops and kiosks.

But, whereas people remembered Sankara, and attributed to him much of their commitment to democracy and their struggle, it was Norbert Zongo, and his unbowed courage as a journalist speaking out against the Campaoré regime, that seemed to have been the force behind the recent social and political history that had bought the country to this current moment of popular triumph.

Now, sitting in the offices of the Le Reporter newspaper–an independent investigative journalism newspaper started by Ouedraogo Boureima and his partner Hervé Taoko in 2007, Norbert Zongo was once again at the centre of our conversation. “I would collect money all week so that I could buy Zongo’s newspaper,” Boureima tells me. An unassuming man, he does not reflect his own public persona of a daring, courageous journalist. Zongo had launched the independent L’Indépendant in Ouagadougou in 1993. “L’Indépendant was all I read. He was my inspiration, and the reason why I pursued a career as a journalist once I graduated from university.”

I am sitting with Boureima in his small, cramped office. The windows are shut tightly against the afternoon light, and he has a single, unshaded bulb hanging from the ceiling to illuminate the room. Piles of papers, newspapers, files and folders are spread out over the huge desk, the steel cabinets behind his chair, on the window sill, on the shelves drilled into the walls, on the floor next to the desk, and even some under his desk. Boureima continues to work on his computer, and scratch notes as he speaks to me. He seems to know precisely where everything is in this chaos. “We started this paper because we wanted to have greater freedom to do investigative work.” He hands me samples of reportage that have recently won awards, including an investigation that received a Norbert Zongo Prize last year. “I previously worked at Le Pays, but the editors were too close to people in power, and hence, too afraid of doing serious investigative journalism.”

Ironically, as I learn later, it was Norbert Zongo’s cold-blooded murder by members of Blaise Campaoré’s inner-circle (if not him directly), that opened the flood-gates of investigative reportage. “Before Zongo was killed, he was the only one pursuing serious investigations into government corruption and culture of political impunity.” Boureima explains, handing me a copy of yet another recent journalism award. “After his murder, people were so angry that a number of new investigative outlets–many run my independents like me, emerged and began to pursue and attack the government.” He laughs as he says this. “It was their single biggest political miscalculation.” He leans forward onto his desk, causing a pile of file folders to slide and crash onto the floor. But he is holding my eyes. “They silenced Zongo, but gave the nation a voice.”

Image information: At Norbert Zongo’s death anniversary of death. 2015. Copyright @ Asim Rafiqui 2016.

Norbert Zongo had been a thorn in the regime’s side for decades. In fact, he was a dissident and political critic before he was a journalist. In 1979, while still in Togo where he was attending the University of Lomé, he wrote and published a novel called Le Parachutage. The protagonist of the novel, an African dictator, was modelled on the then Togo President Gnassingbé Eyadema, and the author did not paint a pleasant picture. He  soon left for Burkina Faso, where he was imprisoned for a year. In 1993, after spending time in Cameroon, and stints in local newspapers like Le Journal du Jeudi and La Clef, where he continued to critique the regime, he launched his own paper L’Indépendant. And everybody read the L’Indépendant and it had attained a circulation of nearly 16,000 per week [Soré, 2008].

His murder sent shockwaves across the country. Unlike Sankara’s assassination, where the shock left the country stunned into silence as Campaoré’s regime moved quickly to tighten it grip, erase Sankara’s social and economic experiments, and re-integrate the country into the system of international, and particularly French, capital, Zongo’s murder provoked an unprecedented outpouring of anger and agitation. Riots, street marches, pickets, petitions, editorials, and legal challenges were aimed at the regime as thousands came out demanding an answer, and prosecution of the perpetrators. The demonstrations and agitations lasted for over a month, and also led to the creation of new investigative publications like Bendre, Le Reporter and L’Evénement. As the French journalist, Thierry Perret, pointed out “…inevitably, the Zongo affair…contributed to free media in Burkina Faso” [Soré, 2008, 37]. “We did it to save ourselves.” Boureima adds, as if to ensure that I do not imagine the moment to be one of pure ideals. “If we hadn’t, we too would have been killed.”

Zongo’s assassination led to placing the regime on notice–it could no longer kill its critics without facing a threat to its own existence. The protests that emerged, strangely, remained focused on the necessity of a transparent and neutral investigation into the killings. That is, they remained well within the limits of state political and legal institutional arrangements, and never threatened the fundamental foundations of the state itself. The people’s movements, the social protests, the activists and the media, had stayed within the realm of the law, and the arrangements of state institutions. Just as they have done more recently in the aftermath of Campaoré’s departure. It reminded me of Chouli’s pessimism about the aftermath of the uprising against Campaoré, when she argued that civic groups “…for the most part…are not organising themselves against state power, but rather are wedded to the current hegemonic concept of civil society, that is to say neoliberalism, in which they are just keeping a watchful eye on ‘good governance’” [Chouli, 2015].

They state may not have been able to kill with the impunity and indifference it once had before the murder of Zongo, but it nevertheless continued to exercise its power to suppress the press. As Soré pointed out in her report–the last such detailed analysis of the Burkina Faso journalism done to date, that:

…Governmental elites [continue] to “brutalise” the media world by using legal, institutional regulatory instruments. This legal (codes, laws…) and institutional (Higher Communication Council) system also oppresses the press and sometimes questions its freedom. Journalists and, notably managing editors are constantly summoned by the National Security to defend articles that they have published. The last summons concerned the editor of Bendré, managed by Cheriff Sy, in September 2007.

The weight of the penal code against libel is frequently invoked by the government against the press. In 2006, the newspaper L’Evénement was condemned for libelling the character of François Compaoré, president Blaise Compaoré’s young brother. The newspapers L’Indépendant and Le pays were both condemned in 2007 also [Soré, 2008]. 

The situation still remains fragile for journalists in the country, and perhaps more so under the new ‘post-revolution’ government. The current government enjoys a high degree of legitimacy in the eyes of the international community, chosen as it was after a free and fair election in 2016. This has given it room to continue to use libel and recently imposed ‘terrorism’ laws, to silence journalists. And in some cases, entire publications, as Reporters San Frontieres recently reported when the newspaper L’Evénement was shut down by Burkina Faso’s High Council for Communication (CSC) for two months.