Smear campaign targets three journalists in Burkina Faso and two French journalists
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns the use of a bogus media network to wage a smear campaign against two French journalists who were recently expelled from Burkina Faso and three Burkinabé colleagues. This use of disinformation to intimidate journalists is the latest escalation in attempts to muzzle reliable and independent reporting in Burkina Faso, RSF says.
The campaign against Libération’s Agnès Faivre, Le Monde’s Sophie Douce and the three Burkinabé journalists – Lamine Traoré of Radio Oméga, Hyacinthe Sanou of Studio Yafa and FasoCheck, and Boukary Ouoba of the Burkina Journalists’ Association – is being waged by bogus sites affiliated to the Pan-African Group for Trade and Investment (GPCI).
The smear campaign was launched five days after Libération published an investigation on 27 March about the murders of children and adolescents in the north of Burkina Faso in which members of its army were implicated.
The appearance of this content using spurious grounds to smear local and foreign journalists is the latest example of how press freedom is declining week after week in Burkina Faso. This campaign, which seeks to discredit and intimidate independent reporting, threatens the work and safety of the targeted journalists and all media personnel. The authorities should protect them and should participate in the fight against disinformation so that journalists can work without risk of reprisals.
Disinformation campaign targeting Libération and Le Monde
At the core of the campaign is a two-minute video that was released on 1 April by a GPCI-created media outlet calling itself Wadjey's TV and was circulated on social media and via WhatsApp groups with the aim of discrediting the Libération report by journalists Célian Macé, Alexandre Horn and Matteo Maillard.
The video accuses the French authorities and the Research for Development Institute (IRD) of providing the journalists with “large sums of money to be used to pay leaders of the Fulani community to make false statements.” It was on the evening of 1 April that Faivre was told she had 24 hours to leave the country. Douce was given the same message the next day.
But even before 27 March, the day the Libération report was published, several GPCI websites had begun attacking Libération and Le Monde, accusing them of being “paid and recruited by France to destabilise Burkina Faso,” as CCB TV News wrote on its Facebook page.
Targeting Burkinabé journalists
The three Burkinabé journalists – Traoré, Sanou and Ouoba – were accused of abetting Libération and Le Monde.
“This is the third time in a few months that I’ve been subjected to threats or intimidation,” Traoré said. “I had to stop working for several days,” he said. Deploring the failure of the authorities to condemn these press freedom violations, he added: “We had very little public support. Some journalistic organisations issued a press release on 13 April denouncing the threats against us but no one spoke out on an individual basis. There were no statements of messages from the government on this subject.”
Valdez Onanina, the head of Africa Check’s Dakar-based French-language bureau, said such campaigns highlight the challenge facing organisations that combat disinformation. “Our fact-checking units must now do more than just check facts,” he said. “We need to pay more attention to the mechanisms behind the production and dissemination of false information in order to better understand and combat it.”
Wagner ally in charge
All of the websites identified as having participated in this smear campaign are affiliated to the GPCI, according to a Libération investigation published on 13 April.
Run by Ivorian lobbyist Harouna Douamba, the GPCI is notorious for its role in influence trafficking and disinformation, especially in Burkina Faso, Mali, Togo, Morocco and the Central African Republic. Facebook shut down its pages but its tentacles grow again quickly and replacement pages have already appeared. Meanwhile, the GPCI-affiliated sites that carried the false information are still active.
This is not Douamba’s first venture. It was Douamba who, in 2011, created ANA (an acronym of Aimons notre Afrique - Let’s Love Our Africa), an association linked to the ANAcom network that was behind several media disinformation operations and smear campaigns targeting France and UN entities, mainly in the Central African Republic. They had the clear aim of supporting the CAR government and the pro-Russian influence policies pursued by the Russian paramilitary group Wagner, which was one of ANAcom’s sources of funding. Facebook eventually banned the group and its 21 online outlets, according to All Eyes on Wagner.
This smear campaign and the lies about journalists being circulated massively online are new examples of the problems covered in a report that RSF published on 3 April about the significant decline in press freedom in the Sahel.