“What it’s like to be a journalist in the Sahel” – RSF report on threats to journalism in this African region
Two weeks after French journalist Olivier Dubois was released after being held hostage for 711 days in Mali, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is publishing a report about the growing threats to journalism in Africa’s Sahel region.
Five journalists have been killed in the Sahel in the past 10 years, while two others recently went missing. Hundreds of others have been threatened and can no longer work without putting their lives in danger. In the 40 pages of its latest report, What It’s Like to Be a Journalist in the Sahel, RSF reveals the extent to which the conditions for practicing journalism have worsened in this part of the world, and how it is becoming a “no-news zone”.
To be a journalist in the Sahel means enduring the growing presence of radical armed groups who do not hesitate to kill reporters or kidnap them and use them as bargaining chips. It means knowing how to cope with new military governments which, after taking power in coups, impose their own concept of journalism and issue "patriotic directives". Journalists must also learn to co-exist with the Wagner militia, which is exerting an increasingly visible influence on the regional news and information environment, and to elude the traps set by disinformation mercenaries.
As well as many dangers, journalists in the Sahel now also face many obstacles imposed by governments, which often arbitrarily restrict their freedom of movement and right to report the news, especially in regions where armed groups are present.
What It’s Like to Be a Journalist in the Sahel is the fruit of the RSF Dakar bureau staff’s direct involvement in the field and their interviews with dozens of experts and journalists living or working in the region. The report not only describes the new enemies facing local journalists and foreign media but also considers how the challenges to reporting can be overcome, looks at initiatives that exploit a capacity for resilience, and makes a series of recommendations.
“The immense joy we felt when Olivier Dubois was freed on 20 March must not divert attention from the growing difficulties for journalists working in the Sahel. This part of the African continent is becoming a region that is dangerously deprived of independent journalists and reliable reporting, a region where self-censorship is becoming the norm. To prevent the Sahel from becoming a no-news zone, this report also addresses an appeal to the region’s governments. Decisive action is needed to avoid depriving 110 million Sahelians of their basic right to be informed.
The report’s 10 key points:
1. Deadly region for journalists
Three other journalists have been killed in the region since Radio France Internationale reporter Ghislaine Dupont and sound technician Claude Verlon were killed by their kidnappers in Mali in 2013. They are Obed Nangbatna, a reporter and cameraman for the national TV channel Télé Tchad in Chad in 2019, and two Spanish journalists, reporter David Beriain and cameraman Roberto Fraile, who were killed while reporting with an anti-poaching unit in eastern Burkina Faso in 2021.
2. Maximum risk of abduction
Kidnapped by an armed group affiliated with Al-Qaeda in Gao, in northeastern Mali, on 8 April 2021, French journalist Olivier Dubois was released after 711 days in captivity on 20 March 2023. But two Malian journalists, Hamadoun Nialibouly and Moussa M’Bana Dicko, who were also abducted by armed groups in Mali, are still missing. Journalists are seen as potential bargaining chips. One of them was kidnapped because of articles that had displeased his abductors.
3. Increasingly limited space for reporting
The areas that are banned or hard to access for journalists have grown enormously in the Sahel. In addition to direct threats to their physical safety, reporters are also subjected to arbitrary administrative restrictions by some governments. Obtaining accreditation and all the necessary permits for reporting is often a challenging obstacle course. Foreign reporters also risk arbitrary deportation.
4. Journalists expelled, international broadcasters banned
In Mali and Burkina Faso, the military governments that took power in coups have not hesitated to reshape the media landscape by expelling journalists and shutting down local broadcasting by international media. The French public broadcasters Radio France Internationale (RFI) and France 24 have been the main targets.
5. Threat from disinformation mercenaries
Disinformation is now widespread in the Sahel, which is proving to be a laboratory for the "disinformation mercenaries" who mostly operate on social media but also from within the ruling juntas, who are unfailing in their support for their new Russian allies.
6. Direct editorial pressure
Whether by “patriotic directives” in Mali or “guideline memos” in Benin, the region’s governments try to shape news and information and control what the media say. These methods directly threaten journalists’ independence and the reliability of their reporting.
7. End of protective laws
The worsening security situation has undermined the legislative progress that had helped to gradually strengthen the media sector and protect journalism in the Sahel from the early 1990s to 2010. In Benin, a Digital Law has been used to arbitrarily detain several journalists such as Bénin Web TV’s Ignace Sossou in 2020.
8. Teaming up to combat disinformation
Despite the difficult environment, initiatives to combat disinformation have emerged at the local level. Some media have developed “fact checking” services tasked with systematically checking statements that are widely shared by government officials or politicians or circulate online. Projects such as Mali Check, Africa Check, or DésinfoxTchad are tackling disinformation.
9. Journalists networking
New networked radio stations such as Yafa, Kalangou and Tamani have been created to cover the news in the different local languages spoken in the Sahel and provide important information to crisis-hit populations. They also include Radio Ndarason Internationale in the particularly dangerous cross-border area around Lake Chad. At the same time, the Norbert Zongo Cell for Investigative Journalism (CENOZO) is a regional network of journalists that is promoting independent investigative journalism in the region.
10. Journalism in the Sahel can be protected
RSF reminds the countries of the Sahel that the complex task of dealing with terrorist attacks and the response from regular armies must not be regarded as grounds for violating the right to information and press freedom. RSF also urges the West African organisations ECOWAS and CEMAC to draft a sub-regional code of conduct for the safety of journalists in war zones, and to recognise the Journalism Trust Initiative (JTI) as the standard for promoting reliable news and information online.