Two men have been accused of defamation after they allegedly lied to a Burkina Faso journalist in a recent report, which found that those responsible for distributing aid in the country are exploiting internally displaced women, demanding sex in return for food. The government and the media outlet which published the story are now at loggerheads as the trial of the two men is set for the end of the month.
In the northern town of Kongoussi on Wednesday, two men displaced by Burkina Faso’s conflict stood accused of defamation after they told a local journalist that women in their community, including one of their wives, had been forced into sex in exchange for food aid distributed by the government.
A key witness, the director of Minute.bf, which initially published the story, did not arrive for the court hearing. The judge subsequently postponed the case until September 29.
Minute.bf published a statement on their website later in the day, claiming they had not received a summons to appear at the court.
Speaking to VOA Wednesday, Lassane Sawadogo, director of Minute.bf said he believes they spoke to credible witnesses despite doubts after publication.
"One of our sources clearly said that his wife traded sex for food. For us, a husband who makes such statements about his own wife cannot be lying. But how do we verify such information? We have now been told that the people we interviewed confessed they lied. What’s to say they are not lying again?"
Sawadogo went on to say he hopes the government will investigate the allegations of sex in exchange for food in other parts of the country too.
Last month, VOA and another news website focusing on aid, The New Humanitarian, also published stories documenting testimonies from nine women who said they had been forced into sex in exchange for food aid in the nearby city of Kaya.
One of the defendants outside the courtroom in Kongoussi told VOA he had lied to Minute.bf. Meanwhile, members of the government’s social action department responsible for distributing aid in the area spoke to members of the local press. When VOA asked for an interview, they said they were banned from speaking to international media without authorization.
At a press conference on Monday, the minister for humanitarian affairs, Laurence Ilboudo-Marchal blamed Minute.bf for rushing to publish without verification in response to a question on the matter.
"Minute.bf, what you did there, you almost destroyed families because you didn’t give us time to answer you," she said. "You were making an important denunciation. Did you write to us? Let us listen to you? Or come to ask us and say, 'Madam minister here are the accusations, what is your answer?' If you had published our response, maybe this wouldn’t have gone to court," she said.
At the press conference, the minister also faced questions about a recent report from aid group The Norwegian Refugee Council, which said the government was slow to register newly displaced people and was risking lives as a result.
Over the last year, the government has also implemented a ban on journalists trying to visit official camps for internally displaced people in the country.
With neither the government nor Minute.bf seeming ready to back down, Burkina Faso’s sex for food aid scandal remains unsolved.