Burkina Faso urged not to clamp down on reporting

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A US-based journalists’ rights group urged Burkina Faso’s government to nix a bill that would impose stiff prison sentences on media “demoralising” security services battling a strengthening jihadist insurgency.

Militants, some with links to al Qaeda, repeatedly struck soldiers and civilians this year. Hundreds of civilians have been killed in tit-for-tat violence between herding and farming communities and attacks on worshippers from the Christian minority.

Burkinabe security forces responding to the unrest are accused by rights groups of summarily executing people suspected of helping the militants.

The law, which parliament adopted on June 21 but still needs presidential approval, calls for up to 10 years’ jail and up to two million CFA franc ($3,457) fines for anyone who “participates in an initiative to demoralise the defence and security forces”.

It can impose sentences up to five years and fines up to 10 million CFA francs for publication of information compromising security operations, false information about rights abuses or destruction of property, or images andaudio from a “terrorist” attack.

“President Roch Marc Christian Kabore and the Constitutional Council should reject changes to Burkina Faso’s penal code that criminalise disseminating information and reporting on security concerns,” said Angela Quintal, Africa programme co-ordinator for New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

“Under no circumstances should journalists face imprisonment or crippling financial penalties for their work,” she added.

Officials did not respond to requests for comment on the legislation. Government promised to investigate allegations of security services abuse.

Various countries passed laws in recent years to crack down on “fake news”, drawing concern from free speech advocates, but Burkina Faso’s would be among the most restrictive.

The 2014 revolution that overthrew Blaise Campaore one of Africa’s longest-serving leaders raised hopes for expanded civil liberties. Kabore was elected in 2015 on pledges to restore democracy and justice.

Repeated jihadist attacks in recent years, many by militants based in neighbouring Mali, led to criticism of Kabore’s government and pressure to restore security.