The military government in Burkina Faso, on November 21, 2023, adopted a new law that empowers the President to choose the head of the country’s media regulatory body in what has been widely condemned as threat to the independence of the media and safety of journalists in the strife-torn country.
Under the previous law, the President of the CSC was elected by his fellow councillors.
The law governing the powers, composition, organisation and functioning of the Conseil supérieur de la communication (CSC) was unanimously adopted by the Assemblée législative de Transition (ALT), the transitional parliament.
Besides granting the Head of State the power to appoint the President of the CSC, the new law allows for the Vice President to be also appointed by decree upon the recommendation of the Conseil superieur de la communications. This provision is captured under Article 34.
These, among other changes to the law on media regulatory body, have raised major concerns about their impact on press freedom, freedom of expression, and the independence of the regulatory body.
“November 21 is a dark day for the Burkinabe media, marking a serious step backward,” lamented Aboubacar Sanfo, Deputy Secretary General of the Syndicat Autonome des Travailleurs de l’Information et de la Culture (SYNATIC), referring to the adoption of this new media law.
Another alarming development is the broadening of the CSC’s powers, allowing it to monitor social media accounts, particularly Facebook, and pages with at least 5,000 followers.
Regarding this social media oversight, Boureima Ouédraogo, General Secretary of the Norbert-Zongo investigative journalism unit, expressed concern that the law lumps media professionals, social media influencers and bloggers together under the same regulatory framework.
Moreover, Article 55 grants the CSC the authority to seize equipment and close down media houses, while Article 63), allows the regulator to order suspension of broadcast activities, and to temporarily or permanently withdraw press cards.
Minister of Communication, Jean-Emmanuel Ouédraogo unwittingly confirmed that through the new law, the government is seeking to impose submissive journalism.
“Journalists have nothing to worry about, as long as they work in compliance with the regulations and that, of course, their work does not damage the reputation of individuals who may undermine national cohesion, and that their work does not carry the seeds of crisis,” the spokesperson for the junta said.
Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) believes that the provisions of the new law give the government powerful tools to further influence the media landscape and restrict freedom of expression in Burkina Faso. The law must be reviewed for the following reasons:
• The power granted to the Head of State to directly appoint the chairman of the CSC gives the government direct control over the regulatory body. This process allows the government to install a person favourable to its interests, thereby compromising the independence of the CSC.
# The CSC’s powers to monitor Facebook accounts and pages with a certain number of subscribers provides the government with a means of surveillance on online discussions. This could be used to restrict freedom of expression on digital platforms by targeting individuals or groups critical of the government.
# The power to suspend, shut down a media house or seize its equipment without recourse to judicial oversight can be abused. It is our contention that even if a media house is found by the CSC to have flouted the law, the regulator’s recourse to these extreme sanctions provided under law must be subject to judicial oversight. This is in order to avoid abuses targeted at critical media houses, and in particular, subjecting seized digital equipment to forensic search which could compromise the privacy of its users.
# The power granted to the CSC to permanently withdraw a journalist’s press card is untenable, as such an action amounts to stripping the victim of right to practice as a journalist.
The MFWA is extremely disappointed with the new arrangement and shares the concerns of the media in Burkina Faso. We therefore call on the Burkinabe authorities to address these concerns, by reviewing the law to truly guarantee the independence and freedom of the media. In this regard, we call for constructive dialogue between the government and media stakeholders on the issue.