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Analysts: Safety, Misinformation & Online Violence Press Freedom Risks

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and South Africa's Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor speak to members of the media after attending a Women's Day Event in Pretoria, South Africa, August 9, 2022.

WASHINGTON - Analysts cite safety, misinformation and online violence as the most critical threats facing African journalists today, saying the fact that some countries on the continent like Mali are "no-go" areas for journalists underscores the risk to press freedom.

May 3 will mark 30 years since a United Nations' General Assembly decision to proclaim an international day for press freedom. This year, the celebration is themed "Shaping a Future of Rights: Freedom of expression as a driver for all other human rights."

Sadibou Marong, director of Reporter’s Without Borders' West African bureau regrets that even in 2023, it is still common to see journalists face "arbitrary arrests" in their line of duty on the continent.

"The arbitrary arrests of journalists are still very common in Africa especially during election periods, like what we saw in Nigeria in February. A lot of journalists were attacked, harassed and arrested," he said.

"And our fear is that in 2023, journalists on the continent could face similar predicaments with elections expected to be held in countries like Sierra Leone, Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. These journalists will be under the kind of pressure that exist between politicians and activists."

Marong also said some media unfriendly states have resorted to expelling foreign journalists as a way of silencing the press, describing the move as a dangerous assault to press freedom.

However, he stated that now more than ever, it has become imperative for journalists to perform their duties with integrity to avoid the chaos that often characterize coverage of local elections in Africa by providing independent, unbiased and balanced reporting to their audiences.

Early April, Burkina Faso's transitional military officials expelled two female journalists working for French newspapers Libération and Le Monde without giving reasons for their expulsion. The two, Agnès Faivre and Sophie Douce had valid visas and accreditation.

In a statement reported by Human Rights Watch, Libération said the expulsion is linked to a late March video that showed "bodies of children on the ground with men at the scene wearing apparent Burkinabé military uniforms." The piece was filmed at a military base in northern Burkina Faso.

"The expulsion of correspondents and suspension of international TV and radio channels is something we have seen as a trend taking place on our continent," he said.

Angela Quintal, Committee to Protect Journalists' Africa program coordinator told VOA that there’s been an increase in digital surveillance and the use of forensic tools against journalists, saying this is of "huge concern."

"For example, when a journalist is detained, their phone, which is an important tool for journalists, are tracked. We have seen security forces using digital forensics to extract information, and by that, they [security forces] are not only exposing the journalists, but also the journalists’ sources."

She said despite the plurality of social media offering journalists the opportunity to source information and disseminate content, the increase in disinformation over such platforms pose "existential threats to press freedom and journalism generally."

"We have the power of smear campaign and online violence, particularly against women journalists. All of these are part of an increase in threats against journalists and our continents," Quintal said.

Quintal also expressed concern over the rise in self-censorship by journalists noting that the practice is being driven by fear of facing detention and harassment by state officials.

"If a government or military governments insist that you need to be patriotic else you face prosecution and false news charges," she said, "effectively you shut up because you don’t want you or your family to be targeted, right?"

"This means that there isn’t diverse information out there, and the public loses in the end because the pubic does need accurate and credible information to avoid being manipulated."