- Two Burkinabe editors have been given suspended prison sentences for referring to international reports on the 1998 murder of journalist Norbert Zongo. The reports had linked François Compaoré, the brother of Burkina Faso's President, to the killing.
The Ouagadougou High Court in a sitting yesterday found Germain Bittiou Nama, the publisher of the privately-owned fortnightly 'Evénement', and Newton Ahmed Barry, its editor, guilty of libelling François Compaoré, the younger brother of President Blaise Compaoré. Both were given a two-month suspended prison sentence and fines of francs CFA 300,000 (euro 450), in addition to a symbolic CFA 1 damage fine to the plaintiff.
Moreover, they were obliged to publish the conclusions of the judgement in Burkina Faso's leading three daily newspapers; 'Sidwaya', the 'Observateur Paalga' and 'Le Pays'. In this way, the judge expected the "libellous news" of Mr Compaoré's involvement of the Zongo killing to be cleared among the Burkinabe public.
The dispute came after an article on the 1998 murder of Burkina Faso's most prominent journalist, Norbert Zongo, which was published by the 'Evénement' in its 25 October edition. In a front page article, carrying the photo of François Compaoré in connection with the Zongo assassination, the newspaper included the text "So it is him."
But the 'Evénement' newspaper had not taken the accusation out of the blue, and was clearly referring to those making the original statement of guilt - the Paris-based media watchdogs Reporters sans Frontières (RSF). "Until now we had not been able to say [Mr Compaoré's] name. Reporters sans Frontières has finally done it," the front page text had continued.
The fortnightly newspaper was indeed referring to a news conference about the Zongo case which RSF leader Robert Ménard had given in Ouagadougou five days before. Mr Ménard, who has been campaigning to find Mr Zongo's killers since 1998, presented new evidence pointing towards Mr Compaoré to the Burkinabe press and Burkina Faso's public prosecutor. RSF had asked the prosecutor to reopen investigations into the Zongo case on the basis of this "new evidence".
Several newspapers carried stories on this "evidence" presented by Mr Ménard, although 'Evénement' went furthest in pointing to Mr Compaoré as responsible for the Zongo killing. "We feel that L'Evénement is being singled out over a story carried by several other newspapers," defence lawyer Bénéwendé Sankara said while the case was being heard.
Presented with the dramatic consequences of their October appearance in Ouagadougou, RSF today issued a statement voicing stupefaction at the judgement and "total solidarity" with the two 'Evénement' editors. RSF said the editors had been convicted "by a judicial system which, in cases relating to the Zongo murder, has already demonstrated that it only redresses wrongs supposedly done to the authorities."
The media watchdogs added that they still stood behind their accusations against Mr Compaoré. "We reaffirm that François Compaoré lied in his statement to the Independent Commission of Enquiry (CEI) and that it is therefore legitimate to voice suspicions about his role in the Zongo case," the group said, referring to the evidence presented by Mr Ménard in October.
The RSF leader thus gave the Burkinabe public prosecutor the original version of the 1999 CEI report, the one the commission drafted before it was before it was toned down on the insistence of two of its members who represented the government. The final version completely eliminated passages about the contradictions in François Compaoré's statement to the commission, and about businessman Oumarou Kanazoé's attempts to silence Mr Zongo prior to his murder.
After an investigating judge dismissed all charges in July 2006, the case was considered closed and, under article 189 of the code of criminal procedure, it could thereafter only be reopened if there were "new accusations" liable to "strengthen the accusations that have already proved too weak" or to "contribute new developments useful in establishing the truth."
Mr Zongo, editor of the weekly 'Indépendant', was shot dead on 13 December 1998, while investigating the brutal murder of François Compaoré's driver earlier that year. Also the CEI concluded that the his investigations into the driver's killing had caused his own assassination.
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