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ICRC in Burkina Targeted: Report

FILE: Workers from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Taken Jan. 26, 2022.
FILE: Workers from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Taken Jan. 26, 2022.

An Israeli firm in 2020 sought to discredit the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Burkina Faso, presumably at the request of the Burkinabe government, investigative journalists said Thursday.

The report by a consortium of journalists led by a French non-profit Forbidden Stories appears to add to a growing body of evidence that shadowy private firms worldwide are using hacking and social media to manipulate public opinion.

Journalists posing as potential clients met one of the two heads of Israeli influence company Percepto International, Royi Burstien, who cited Burkina Faso as a successful disinformation campaign by his company.

Although Percepto had not yet been founded at the time, "Burstien presented the case study as a significant achievement of Percepto's," it said.

Burkina Faso is in the grip of a seven-year jihadist insurgency that has claimed thousands of lives and displaced at least two million people from their homes.

In the meeting, Burstien, whose company website says he previously served in Israeli military intelligence, displayed a PowerPoint on "Limiting Prominent NGO Intervention" for an unnamed government, Forbidden Stories said.

"Our client had a real problem with a specific NGO that really was not objective... The question is, how do you... put them on the sideline?" he told them.

Based on a few clues, the reporters managed to trace the controversy's trajectory, Forbidden Stories said.

In the alleged disinformation campaign, an opinion piece appeared in French far-right magazine Valeurs Actuelles on August 3, 2020, asking whether the ICRC was the "involuntary godfather of terrorism in Burkina Faso."

The article was circulated by Burkinabe outlets and provoked a fierce anti-ICRC controversy fed by social media, leading to fears for the safety of ICRC employees working in the country, Forbidden Stories said.

French analyst Emmanuel Dupuy, who wrote the article, told AFP he had no link with Percepto, and was unaware of its existence.

He said an adviser to the country's then-president Roch Marc Christian Kabore, Samuel Sellem, suggested he write the article, for which he was not paid.

"Everything is true in the column, I wouldn't change a comma," he said.

- 'Real harm to people in need' -

As the controversy grew in Burkina Faso, AFP on September 14, 2020 published a response by then ICRC head Peter Maurer, in which he said the organization only entered into dialogue with armed groups out of humanitarian necessity.

Forbidden Stories said AFP "amplified the news," allegations to which the agency has responded.

"AFP on September 14, 2020 factually reported on a press conference held by the ICRC president in Ouagadougou, according to the journalistic standards of one of the world's largest international news agencies," AFP global news director Phil Chetwynd said.

"At no prior stage had AFP reported on the contents of the Valeurs Actuelles opinion piece," he added.

ICRC's director-general Robert Mardini on Thursday regretted the "harmful consequences" of "misinformation."

"Misinformation, disinformation and hate speech are playing an increasingly damaging role in countries affected by conflict, causing real harm to people in need and hindering humanitarian efforts to serve them," he told AFP.

"The latest example from Burkina Faso shows that some information operations are sophisticated and coordinated."

Lior Chorev, co-founder of Percepto, said the company had not participated in any anti-ICRC campaign in Burkina Faso, nor did it "create stories" or "approach journalists," Forbidden Stories said.

As for the reported "NGO" presentation, Chorev said it "can be a case study that is not related directly to Percepto, but just a general case study," it added.

The ICRC on its website defines itself not as an NGO, but as an "independent, neutral organization ensuring humanitarian protection and assistance for victims of armed conflict."

The consortium's latest report follows another published by the same group on Wednesday that another Israeli firm, dubbed "Team Jorge", sought to influence more than 30 elections around the world for clients by hacking, sabotage and spreading disinformation.