In what poses a threat to freedom of expression online, governments in Burkina Faso and Niger have adopted new laws that introduce fines and prison terms for publications authorities deem compromise security and public order.
In Burkina Faso, the new penal code which was passed by Parliament on June 21, 2019, imposes punitive sanctions including prison sentences and fines of up to 10 million CFA francs (about 17,350 USD) for publication, in any medium, liable to undermine security.
“Anyone who publishes or relays live or delayed, through any means of communication, whatever the medium, information, images or sounds likely to compromise the conduct of an operation or intervention of the Defense and Security Forces against acts of terrorism, is punishable by imprisonment from one to five years and a fine of 1 million to CFA francs 10 million, ” states Article 312-15 of the new penal code.
More ominously, article 312-16 of the new code requires anyone, including journalists, who wishes to disseminate information relating to “images and sounds of scenes of terrorist offenses” to obtain prior authorisation.
The new code has caused a lot of indignation in the media fraternity and press freedom organisations in Burkina Faso.
“The current government wants to kill the national press. What prior authorization would a journalist need to cover and report on an emergency, unforeseen and unpredictable situation?” queried Guzouma Sanogo, President of the Association of Journalists of Burkina Faso (AJB), a member association of the Centre National de Presse – Norbert Zongo (CNP-NZ), MFWA’s national partner in Burkina Faso.
However, the Minister of Justice, Réné Bessolé Bagoro, defends the new law as a move by government intended to prosecute acts that “demoralize our (secuirty) troops; it cannot upset media professionalism, but would help punish the culprits”.
The Minister’s statement calls to mind the arrest and subsequent sentencing of Naim Toure, a social media activist who criticised the military for their alleged negligence of a soldier injured during an anti-terrorist operation in July 2018.
A similarly controversial provision in Niger’s cybercrime law adopted on June 25, 2019, imposes fines of about US$ 8,700 and prison sentences of up to three years for online publications deemed to undermine public order.
“It is an offense punishable by imprisonment for six (6) months to three (3) years and a fine of CFA francs 1million to CFA francs 5 million for anyone to produce, make available to others or disseminate, through an information system, data of a nature liable to undermine public order or human dignity,” reads Article 31 of the cybercrime law.
As expected, the new restrictions on expression have attracted critical reactions from the media and civil society organisations.
“The government should have taken steps to ensure broad consultation in the elaboration of the cybersecurity bill in such a way that it does not infringe freedom of expression in Niger. The law in its present may undermine freedom of expression,” said Mamane Jaharou, General Secretary of ONIMED, National partner organisation of Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) in Niger.
The MFWA finds these new laws in Burkina Faso and Niger as pretexts by the authorities to use the delicate security situation in the two countries to restrict free expression and reintroduce prison terms for press offenses.
The MFWA supports in principle efforts by governments to ensure security and peace without which freedom of expression and of the press cannot be exercised in their respective countries. However, we condemn the resort to repressive laws that lend themselves to broad interpretation and are, therefore, liable to be abused. Consequently, we call for dialogue between the government and all actors concerned to review the repressive laws.