Between disinformation campaigns and political propaganda, press freedom has deteriorated considerably in Burkina Faso. French media seem to be in the crosshairs of the Burkinabe authorities. Following the suspension of France 24 and Radio France Internationale (RFI) earlier this year, correspondents Agnès Faivre (“Libération”) and Sophie Douce (“Le Monde”) were recently expelled from Burkina Faso on April 1, 2023. Agnès Faivre agreed to answer our questions.
By Andea Petitjean
According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the Sahelian strip threatens to become “Africa’s largest information-free zone”. The countries of the Sahel are listed as “high-risk areas” for journalists, particularly Burkina Faso, Mali and Chad. There are many dangers for media professionals there, notably due to the presence of jihadists whose attacks have become increasingly frequent since 2015, bloody intercommunity clashes, and violent military juntas. Journalists are no longer safe and access to information is limited.
Head of state since 2022 following a double coup d’état, Captain Ibrahim Traoré continues to increase pressure on the media. According to the 2023 World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Burkina Faso is ranked 58th out of 180 countries. According to RSF: “Whether in Mali, Burkina Faso or Chad, as soon as they come to power, the new authorities seek to control the media through bans, restrictions, attacks or arbitrary arrests”.
Public media are particularly vulnerable during putsches. The military sought to take control of national television and radio in order to announce their seizure of power and reshape the country’s media landscape. Journalism and press freedom are under threat, in favor of propaganda.
RFI and France 24 cover African news closely, and are (or at least used to be) two very popular media in Burkina Faso. Until now, a third of the population and over 60% of managers and executives followed France 24 every week in Burkina Faso. But the French media seem to be in the firing line of the Burkina Faso authorities, as recent events testify:
In December 2022, the Burkinabe government decided to ban Radio France Internationale (RFI) from broadcasting. On March 27, 2023, France 24 was banned from broadcasting. The government accused it of broadcasting an interview with the leader of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
But that’s not all. On April 1, 2023, Sophie Douce and Agnès Faivre, correspondents for Le Monde and Libération, were expelled from Burkina Faso. Agnès Faivre lost her accreditation after “Libération” published the findings of an investigation on March 27, which strongly displeased the authorities. The journalist, now back in France, agreed to give us an interview:
What are the risks of being a journalist in Burkina Faso?
There’s a security threat in the country, which has been facing a jihadist insurgency since 2015 that has intensified considerably from 2018-2019. It’s deteriorating very quickly, with 12 out of 13 regions more or less intensely affected by incidents blamed on armed terrorist groups. It’s risky to travel, to go into the field. Very few journalists can travel, although some Burkinabè do, but they are very rare. Moreover, since Ibrahim Traoré came to power, freedom of the press and of opinion have been progressively curtailed. Other risks have emerged for journalists, with an increase in threats, pressure and intimidation.
How is the government trying to censor/control the media and put pressure on journalists?
There is direct pressure from the authorities, and frequent calls to order. Journalists have been summoned to the Service de la Sûreté, an intelligence service, and to the Conseil Supérieur de la Communication for reframing, while others have been sued for defamation or ordered to reveal their sources. When a journalist does not follow the regime’s propaganda, he or she is attacked on social networks, or even accused of being “stateless”. Last but not least, there are hate messages posted on Whatsapp calling for the murder of certain journalists, or the burning down of the premises of Omega Médias, a free-spirited audiovisual group.
What is the current situation between the media and the government? How would you define journalist-government relations in Burkina Faso?
It’s almost a dialogue of the deaf. Burkina Faso’s journalists are trying to negotiate greater freedom of expression, the means to cover the conflict, and better access to official sources, which have been considerably reduced since September 2022. But Burkina Faso’s journalists are demonized and have little room for maneuver.
Why were you expelled from Burkina Faso?
It was following an investigation that appeared in Libération on March 27. We received a video in which a man filmed seven children and teenagers lying on the ground, visibly dead, their hands tied and blindfolded. At one point, one of them lifts a stone and drops it on a child’s face, claiming he was still breathing. It was a very cruel video featuring men dressed in “half-season” fatigues and T-shirts. We investigated these extra-judicial executions and were able to identify that elements of the regular army were present, and that it had taken place in a barracks in Ouahigouya, a town in the north of Burkina Faso. Shortly after the attack on a VDP (Volunteers for the Defense of the Homeland) base, dozens of people had been rounded up in certain Ouahigouya neighborhoods, with the support of the army. The investigation strongly displeased the authorities.
How did you find out that you had been expelled from the country?
The survey was published on Monday, and on Friday I was summoned to the Sûreté, the intelligence service. The interview lasted 1h30. That evening, the officer who had interviewed me came to my home to tell me, on the doorstep, that I’d been deported and that I had 24 hours to leave the country, but he gave no reason. Overnight, the disinformation campaigns targeting me and Sophie Douce began. The day I was summoned to the Sûreté, they also summoned my colleague Sophie Douce (“Le Monde”). We really didn’t understand why she was associated with this, as “Le Monde” hadn’t investigated the video.
Following the suspension of both RFI and France 24, and the expulsion of correspondents from “Libération” and “Le Monde”, the NGO Amnesty International called on the Burkina Faso authorities to “cease attacks and threats against press freedom and freedom of expression” on April 7.
While French media no longer seem welcome in Burkina Faso, the presence of French military forces was also a source of great tension.
In January 2023, several hundred people demonstrated in Ouagadougou against the French presence, demanding, among other things, the departure of the French ambassador and the closure of the French army base at Kamboinsin, where 400 special forces are stationed. Finally, on February 19, 2023, the Burkinabe government announced the total withdrawal of French soldiers from Ouagadougou, after 15 years in the country. When he came to power in autumn 2022, Ibrahim Traoré had given France 30 days to withdraw its troops (until February 25, 2023).