Last month, French journalist Olivier Dubois, who was held hostage in Mali for over a year, was finally released, but foreign and local journalists working in the Sahel tell VOA that press freedoms continue to be eroded in the region, making it more dangerous for those reporters who are still working.
In the past decade, five journalists have been killed and six have gone missing in the Sahel, a vast, semiarid region of western and north-central Africa that stretches along the Sahara desert's southern rim from Senegal to Eritrea.
In 2013, French journalists Ghislaine Dupont and Claude Verlon were kidnapped and killed by an armed insurgent group in Mali; in 2021, two Spanish journalists, David Beriain and cameraman Roberto Fraile, were attacked and killed by a terrorist group in Burkina Faso; in 2018, Malian journalist Birama Toure disappeared and likely died following torture by Mali’s intelligence agency, according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
Home to numerous violent Islamist extremists, the region suffers from political instability and sometimes regular coups, including two in Mali and Burkina Faso and one in Chad since 2020.
In some Sahel countries, journalists are persecuted by armed Islamist factions and ruling military juntas alike — the former abducting or killing reporters, the latter restricting press freedoms or conducting arbitrary arrests.
“We have seen the trends that after taking power, the military juntas have not hesitated to reshape the media landscape in order to better serve their interests,” said Sadibou Marong, sub-Saharan Africa director at Reporters Without Borders, which this week published a new report on the region. “This has been the case in Mali and Burkina Faso, where local broadcasting of several French media outlets has been suspended.”
While the release of Dubois after 711 days in captivity — the 48-year-old French freelancer had been held by al-Qaida-linked Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin — is cause for celebration, Marong said threats to reporters covering the region are growing.
Contacted by VOA, Dubois’ wife, Deborah, said her husband, who was freed at the end of March, is not currently giving interviews.
An editor who has worked with Dubois, Sonia Delesalle-Stolper, told VOA the French newspaper she works for has been affected by the unrest across the Sahel.
“It’s been quite challenging over the last two years for Liberation and our coverage of the Sahel,” said Delesalle-Stolper, the newspaper’s chief foreign editor. “First of all, we had our correspondent in Mali, Olivier Dubois, who was taken hostage in April 2021 and has just been freed over the last two weeks … and the other correspondent who worked afterwards in Mali has decided recently to come back to France, because it has become too dangerous and there are too many threats towards freedom of press.”
Things aren’t much better in neighboring Burkina Faso, she added, noting that Liberation and Le Monde each saw a correspondent expelled from the country in recent days after publishing content perceived by leaders of its military junta as critical of the government.
"So it has become very difficult for the foreign press and Liberation, but as well for the press who have been working locally in Burkina, who are still there, and have more and more difficulties to cover what’s going on,” Delesalle-Stolper said.
Although Dubois has been freed, other local reporters who have been abducted haven’t been heard from since, the Reporters Without Borders report said. Among them are Malian radio journalist Moussa M’Bana Dicko, who was kidnapped in 2021, and Hamadoun Nialibouly, abducted in Mali in 2020.
Not in the field
Benin-based freelance journalist Flore Nobime says working in her country is also becoming more fraught.
“It is becoming more and more difficult for journalists to travel to the northern border areas of Benin to work because of the insecurity that now prevails there,” she told VOA. “We fear armed groups — and, on the other hand, it can turn into a nightmare when we come across the defense and security forces.”
Nobime was detained along with a Dutch reporter last year while reporting from the country’s northern region. Both were accused of espionage, and the foreign journalist was deported.
With so many restrictions on movement and threats to security, some journalists are opting to cover large parts of the Sahel from the various capitals or even from abroad.
Since last year, Mali has permanently suspended Radio France International (RFI) and France24, while Burkina Faso has banned their broadcasts.
David Bache, who worked in Mali as RFI’s correspondent for some four years, has been unable to acquire a Malian visa or press accreditation since early last year — prior to the RFI ban.
“It’s more difficult for the Malian colleagues who are in the country,” he told VOA. “The journalists who used to work for our broadcasts, for Radio France International and who were based in Mali, some of them have traveled and are now in another country.
“One of them is now in Senegal,” he added, “and other people are still in Mali but don’t work for us anymore because it’s too dangerous for them.”
In Mali itself, according to an RSF report, numerous local radio stations have been shuttered, reflecting a similar trend in Burkina Faso.
Bache says he uses his large network of contacts to continue reporting on Mali from Paris, but that it’s always better to be on the ground.
For many Sahel reporters, though, that remains too difficult and risky at the moment.