Recent killings and kidnappings of reporters in the Sahel have highlighted the serious risks facing journalists in the war-torn African region, with some describing themselves as “sick with fear”.
A brutal jihadist conflict in the Sahel countries of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso has left vast tracts of territory outside the control of the state and thousands of people have died.
Journalists reporting the uprising are often targeted by armed groups, either because of their coverage or their ransom value.
The significant risks associated with practicing journalism in the vast semi-arid region were underscored this week when it emerged that missing French reporter Olivier Dubois was likely being held captive by jihadists.
The 46-year-old freelancer had disappeared on April 8 in the northern Malian city of Gao, where he had traveled to interview an al-Qaida-affiliated jihadist commander.
But Dubois said in a video that surfaced Wednesday – which has not been independently confirmed – that he was kidnapped by the Group to Support Islam and Muslims (GSIM), the largest jihadist alliance in the Sahel.
News of his kidnapping also followed the murders of Spanish reporters David Beriain and Roberto Fraile, and Irish NGO worker Rory Young, in Burkina Faso in April.
Salif Zangre, a Burkinabe video journalist, told AFP that the murders are a reminder “of how exposed we can be in our profession.”
He added that while this didn’t affect journalists’ desire to cover the news, he stressed that they needed to take serious precautions.
Describing their work, two local reporters – who are not named by name for security reasons – told AFP that they are often “sick with fear.”
Serge Daniel, a correspondent for AFP and Radio France Internationale (RFI) in Bamako, the capital of Mali, said that the life of a journalist in the Sahel “is not always a happy life”.
He explained that even in the relative comfort of Bamako, many live in houses surrounded by barbed wire and are careful when they are outside.
Two French RFI journalists were murdered in northern Mali in 2013, in an event that shook up many reporters in the region.
But according to Daniel, journalists are now likely to face greater security risks than when the jihadist uprising first emerged in northern Mali.
Islamist fighters later spread to central Mali and into neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger, killing thousands of soldiers and civilians and expelling hundreds of thousands more.
For their part, local journalists say they feel they are under permanent threat.
Brehima Sogoba, the editor-in-chief of the private television station Renouveau TV in Mali, said some of its correspondents have stopped signing their reports for fear of reprisals.
In Niger, where attacks on civilians have increased this year, the head of a community radio station told AFP that journalists should think ‘a thousand times’ before speaking.
“The job is now very risky,” said the journalist, asking for anonymity. “The jihadists and other bandits listen to our broadcasts (and have a habit of threatening radio stations.”
Another radio journalist from Niger, who was also not mentioned by name, said he was especially afraid of being kidnapped.
The chilling effect has spread to listeners who attend radio programs to debate issues, he said, adding that his station has now largely replaced that format as few dare to speak on the airwaves.
Navigating the dangers of the Sahel conflict and mastering its mind-boggling complexity remains a constant challenge for journalists.
Sogoba, the television editor, said journalists must “master the material” to succeed, and have a solid understanding of the issues at stake.
But he added, “The good journalist is the one who lives.”