Human Rights Watch (HRW)

 Burkina Faso authorities should urgently investigate and publicly report on the whereabouts of a journalist and two prominent critics of the country’s military junta, Human Rights Watch said today.

The abductions since June 18 of Serge Oulon, director of an investigative newspaper, Adama Bayala, and Kalifara Séré, both working as television commentators, raise concerns about enforced disappearances and possible unlawful conscriptions into the armed forces. Their cases appear linked to a wave of repression by Burkinabè authorities, who have severely restricted the rights of activists, journalists, opposition party members, and dissidents.

“Arbitrary arrests, abductions, and enforced disappearances of journalists, activists, and dissidents have become the new normal in Burkina Faso,” said Ilaria Allegrozzi, senior Sahel researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The military junta should take immediate action to locate and report on the three missing individuals and release them if they are wrongfully held.”

Adama Bayala, 45, a regular commentator on the private television channel BF1’s show Presse Échos has been missing since he left his office located in the 1,200 Logements neighborhood in the country’s capital, Ouagadougou, at about 1 p.m. on June 28.

Days before Bayala was reported missing, a message posted on the pro-junta Facebook page Anonymous Élite Alpha threatened him, warning him that he “will be next.” The message referred to previous abductions of journalists and dissidents.

“Bayala is one of the few dissenting voices left in Burkina Faso, one who has not spared critical analysis of the decisions and actions of the military authorities,” said a close friend. “We spoke the day of his abduction about the risks he faced. We knew he was in danger.”

On June 24, at 5 a.m., at least nine gunmen in civilian clothes abducted Serge Oulon, 39, director of the bimonthly publication L’Événement (the Event), from his home in Ouagadougou. “They first came with two civilian unmarked vehicles, forced their way in, took Serge, and drove off with him,” Oulon’s brother said. “Later, they came back to Serge’s home, ordered his wife to give them Serge’s phone and laptop. They claimed to be working for the intelligence services.”

In December 2022, Oulon wrote an article denouncing the alleged embezzlement by an army captain of some 400 million CFA (US$660,000) that were part of a budget allocated to support the Volunteers for the Defense of the Homeland (Volontaires pour la défense de la patrie), civilian auxiliaries of the Burkinabè armed forces. On June 20, 2024, the Superior Council for Communication (Conseil supérieur de la communication), Burkina Faso’s media regulator, suspended L’Évènement for one month after it published another article covering the alleged corruption scandal. 

On June 18, Kalifara Séré, commentator on BFI’s TV show 7Infos, was reported missing after leaving a meeting with the Superior Council for Communication to return to his office in Ouagadougou. People close to Séré told Human Rights Watch that the council questioned him about his June 16 TV commentary, where he had expressed doubts about the authenticity of some photographs showing the head of state. On June 19, the council announced the suspension of 7Infos for two weeks. 

On June 24, 11 Burkinabè media organizations denounced the abductions of Oulon and Séré as “proof that the press in Burkina Faso is the subject to harassment and intimidation … in flagrant violation of the law,” and called on the authorities “to put an end to these practices likely to harm the public's right to information.”

Relatives and lawyers representing Bayala, Oulon, and Séré said they have searched for them in various police stations and gendarmerie brigades in vain. The authorities have not disclosed any information on their whereabouts. 

“Burkinabè journalists should not live in fear of abduction for doing their job,” said a Burkinabè journalist, whose name has been withheld for security reasons. “The authorities have succeeded in reducing access to public interest information to virtually zero by targeting journalists, limiting their ability to hold powerful actors to account.” 

The abductions of Bayala, Oulon, and Séré come amid growing reports that Burkinabè security forces have intimidated, arbitrarily detained, forcibly disappeared, and unlawfully conscripted journalists, human rights defenders, political opponents, and dissidents.

In February, Human Rights Watch reported on six other cases of abductions of activists and opposition party members. They are Rasmané Zinaba, Bassirou Badjo, both members of the civil society group Balai Citoyen; Guy Hervé Kam, a prominent lawyer and coordinator of the political group Serve and Not be Served (Servir Et Non Se Servir); Ablassé Ouédraogo, chair of the opposition party Le Faso Autrement (the Alternative Faso); Daouda Diallo, a prominent human rights activist and secretary-general of the Collective against Impunity and Stigmatization of Communities (Collectif contre l'Impunité et la Stigmatisation des Communautés, CISC); and Lamine Ouattara, a member of the Burkinabè Movement for Human and Peoples’ Rights (Mouvement Burkinabè des Droits de l’Homme et des Peuples). At least four of them appeared to have been unlawfully conscripted. 

While governments have the authority to conscript members of the civilian population age 18 and over for national defense, conscription should be authorized and in accordance with domestic law. The conscription law needs to be carried out in a manner that gives the potential conscript notice of the duration of the military service and an adequate opportunity to contest being required to serve at that time. Conscription also needs to be carried out according to standards consistent with nondiscrimination and equal protection under law. The use of conscription for politically motivated purposes violates international human rights protection standards.  

Burkina Faso is party to the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. Enforced disappearances are defined as the arrest or detention of a person by state officials or their agents followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or to reveal the person’s situation or whereabouts. Families of people who have been forcibly disappeared live with the uncertainty of not knowing whether their loved ones are safe and their conditions in captivity.

Since the military coup in September 2022, the junta has increasingly suppressed media freedom and access to information. In April 2024, Burkina Faso’s media regulator suspended the French news network TV5 and several other media outlets for two weeks after they reported on a Human Rights Watch report finding the military committed crimes against humanity against civilians in the Yatenga province. The regulator also blocked the Human Rights Watch website in the country. 

The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, based in Banjul, Gambia, has held four ordinary sessions between August 2023 and June 2024 without adopting one resolution on the deteriorating human rights situation in Burkina Faso. 

“The African Commission should break its inexplicable silence on the Burkina Faso junta’s deepening assault on media freedom,” Allegrozzi said. “The commission should urgently issue a resolution calling on the military authorities to uphold the rights of journalists and critics in line with their obligations under the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.”

Distributed by APO Group on behalf of Human Rights Watch (HRW).