Photograph — AP/VOA

Journalists and press freedom advocates are condemning Burkina Faso’s latest penal code reviews, describing them as a death sentence for reporters and media organizations. Last month, the country’s parliament adopted revisions to the country’s penal code criminalizing the “demoralization” of defence and security forces and the dissemination of information about terrorism and the country’s security forces that could undermine public order or security operations. 

These offences are punishable by five to 10 years in prison and a maximum fine of 10 million Central African francs ($17,331). The revisions also criminalise online publications that insult the memory of a dead person, and prohibits the publishing and sharing of fake news, granting prosecutors or “any person having interest” the ability to ask that such information be removed from any website or publication.  These new revisions were voted in by 103 out of 127 deputies and are awaiting the president’s approval to be signed into law.

“It’s a law that specifically targets journalists,” Guezouma Sanogo, president of Burkina Faso’s Journalists’ Association told The Guadian. “It will roll back the little credit that journalists have with the public. We find the procedure through which this law has been adopted very contemptuous.” Aboubakar Sanfo, a reporter based in Burkina Faso told the Committee to Protect Journalist (CPJ) that he was concerned about the vaguely defined offences listed in the revisions, particularly the about the criminalization of reporting on terrorism.

“Under no circumstances should journalists face imprisonment or crippling financial penalties for their work.” – Angela Quintal, Africa program coordinator, CPJ.

According to a report by the CPJ, media organizations in the country have written letters to both President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré and the Burkinabe Constitutional Council, a government-appointed body that determines the constitutionality of the country’s laws, expressing concern about the revisions. The CPJ has also called on the Burkina Faso authorities to reject these revisions and prevent the enactment of laws that criminalize reporting on terrorism or security operations, and laws that permit jail time for reporters.  

In an interview with reporters in Ouagadougou, Bessolé René Bagoro, the Minister of Justice and Human Rights and the major government official behind the law, explained it thus: “You do not have the right to give the position of security forces, because that will help the enemy know how we are organising ourselves,” he said. “Or, for example, if there is an attack and you publish pictures, you say that people are fleeing, the army is losing, you encourage [the enemy]. So it’s very precise.”

Before these stringent penal code revisions, the West African country was touted as one of Africa’s bastions of press freedom, currently ranking 36th out of 180 countries globally and the fifth best country on the continent for media freedom.

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