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Why Burkina Faso is muzzling foreign media

April 29, 2024

Burkina Faso's military junta has suspended more international media, including DW. It's part of a pattern of press repression as the junta's counterterrorism operations take a high civilian toll.

A mural depicts the silhouette of five men in different poses holding weapons.
A mural is seen in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, which says "stay vigilant and mobilize"Image: AP/picture alliance

Burkina Faso has suspended several more international news organizations for their coverage of a Human Rights Watch report that accuses the army of killing civilians in its battle against Islamist armed groups.

The latest media to be suspended include DW, TV5 Monde and Le Monde, both French media, as well as UK outlet The Guardian.

The move follows the temporary suspension of the BBC and US broadcaster Voice of America last week.

"We are not really surprised about the latest escalation because it follows a pattern of repression and hostility against the media generally, and in particular foreign media," said Muheeb Saeed, manager of the freedom of expression program at the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA).

Since Burkina Faso's military leadership seized power in a coup in September 2022 — the second that year it has suspended numerous media houses, including France 24, Radio France International and Jeune Afrique. It also expelled two French journalists in April, 2023 and no foreign journalists remain in the West African nation.

Local media has also been targeted. For instance, Radio Omega, one of the country's most popular radio stations, was ordered off air last year after it broadcast an interview deemed "insulting" to the new military leaders of neighboring Niger.

Analysts give several reasons for the junta's crackdown on press freedom. A major goal is to stifle criticism over its inability to curb terrorism, they say.

Burkina Faso top of terrorism index

Like several countries in the Sahel, the vast semi-arid region that stretches across Africa below the Sahara, Burkina Faso is struggling to contain terrorist groups linked to al-Qaida and the extremist " Islamic State" group.

Burkina Faso's president, Ibrahim Traore, a captain in the army, overthrew the previous military junta, saying it had failed to stem the violence. Vowing to stamp out the insurgency, he promoted greater cooperation with Russia and ended an agreement with the French military that saw French special forces leave Burkina Faso in early 2023.

Soldiers sit on the back of a pickup truck as they drive down a dirt road along a flat plain
French soldiers (seen here in 2019) were asked to leave in 2023 amid a surge in anti-French sentimentImage: Philippe De Poulpiquet/MAXPPP/dpa/picture alliance

But since Traore took power, Burkina Faso has climbed to first place on the Global Terrorism Index. Deaths due to terrorism soared by more than two-thirds in 2023 compared to the previous year, with almost 2,000 people killed, according to the index. The West African nation now accounts for nearly a quarter of all terrorist deaths globally.

"The war that is being waged against the insurgents in Burkina Faso is being carried out both on the battlefield and also on the ideological level," Saeed told DW. "At the ideological level, there's been a lot of propaganda that is aimed at whipping all the citizens into line, so any criticism of the administration has been met with some form of repression."

Army accused of rights abuses

The junta is also using media crackdowns to cover up human rights abuses committed by the army in its counterterrorism operations, says Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

"Most of the time, when they are trying to fight back the armed group terrorists, their regular army is also doing a lot of human rights violations and [the junta] don't want independent media to reveal these awful human rights violations," said Sadibou Marong, director of RSF's West Africa bureau.

People mill about on the streets as Ibrahim Traore, wearing a military uniform, gives a thumbs-up to the crowd. He is flanked by men holding guns.
Ibrahim Traore, now Burkina Faso's president, is welcomed by supporters holding a Russian flag shortly after coming to power in a coupImage: Vincent Bado/REUTERS

The Human Rights Watch report that triggered the latest media suspensions accused Burkina Faso's army of carrying out mass killings of at least 223 villagers in February 2024.

Similar massacres have been documented by other rights and  media organizations. Under the junta led by Traore, the killings of civilians by security forces jumped from 430 in 2022 to 735 in 2023 according to figures from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, a US-based non-profit.

Local media muzzled

The crackdown on international media will make it even harder for local outlets, say both Reporters Without Borders and the Media Foundation for West Africa.

"The international media organizations generally are more influential and have a certain level of diplomatic muscle," the MFWA's Saeed told DW. "And so if the international media themselves are being attacked, expelled and suspended, it clearly sends a chilling signal to the local media to fall in line or suffer a similar fate."

Local journalists have become extremely cautious and self-censorship is rampant, both Saeed and RSF's Marong say, with media outlets using the junta's official press statements as the basis for their reporting on the security crisis.

"Journalists prefer to wait for the official narrative, the official press statement, coming from the government," Marong said. "This is not independent journalism."

Last week, MFWA noted at least four local newspapers covering the same story "word for word," Saeed said.

"This feeds into the theory that the military regime dictates to the media what they are to write, and in fact the media doesn't even have a right to make any changes to whatever communique they receive from the military, not even a comma," he concluded.

Germany pays a visit to Burkina Faso's military junta

Edited by: Cathrin Schaer

Kate Hairsine Australian-born journalist and senior editor who mainly focuses on Africa.