Media polarisation risks press freedom and peace in conflict-hit Mali and Ethiopia

The media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) released the 20th edition of its World Press Freedom Index last week, in which it underscored “a twofold increase in polarisation amplified by information chaos.”

Media polarisation is emerging as one overarching hurdle inhibiting progress in conflict-marred regions of Africa, where it is also fast becoming an open threat to peace and security.

Few countries illustrate this gloomy trend better than Mali in the Sahel, and Ethiopia at the Horn of Africa.

In Mali, political uncertainty and tensions between the country’s government and former colonial power, France, have increased since a military coup led by Colonel Assimi Goita in August 2020 overthrew elected President Ibrahim Keïta, who was supported by France.

Last week, the military government accused the two French broadcasters RFI and France24 of airing disinformation about reports of human rights violations by the Malian army around the town of Diabaly.

The Malian government accused France of spying after the French military released a video of what it said were mercenaries from the Kremlin-linked security firm Wagner burying bodies at a mass grave on 20 April.

NGOs including Human Rights Watch have accused the Malian junta of targeting innocent civilians with over 100 people said to have been killed since December. Mali said the reports that its army had carried out abuses contained false allegations aimed at destabilising the government.

Mali’s High Communication Authority has decided to ban RFI and France 24 from the Malian airwaves. UN rights office spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani warned that the current climate in Mali is “one with a pervasive chilling effect on journalists.”

As the space for free expression is severely curtailed in Mali, social media platforms are playing an increasingly important role. In a region already blighted by military coups in Guinea and Burkina Faso, the current social and political tensions in the west African nation are sustained by disinformation and inflammatory content, which have proven difficult to stamp out.

Mali is now placed 111 out of the 180 countries monitored in the latest World Press Freedom index, a 12-place drop from 2021.

In the eastern part of the continent, Ethiopian federal troops deployed by the prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, have been fighting the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) since November 2020.

Journalists and human rights groups have reported serious abuses in the country, mostly mass killings and violent atrocities. Victims blame federal Ethiopian soldiers, the Amhara regional militias and Eritrean forces.

The UN high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, has said that serious violations of international law may have been committed by Ethiopia, Eritrea and the TPLF.

Ethiopia is ranked 114 in the latest press-freedom rankings, 13 places down from last year. Ahmed made a promising start when he took power in April 2018, but the Nobel peace prize-winner’s war in Tigray has meant a rapid reversal of positive developments, including in the area of press freedom.

This year’s index show that new freedoms are severely threatened. The Committee to Protect Journalists has reported on how erosion of media rights has seriously increased during the conflict. Several journalists and media workers accused of helping foreign media have been arrested.

Furthermore, Ethiopian news media have become dangerously divided along ethnic lines. Facebook and Twitter have come under fire over their roles in the conflict. Critics argue they are not doing enough to prevent the spread of hate speech and incitements to violence on their platforms. Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen has also stated that “in places like Ethiopia” social media “is fanning ethnic violence”, a claim the firms reject.

The RSF uses five indicators to compile the index: political context, legal framework, economic context, sociocultural context and security. Whereas the most worrying part for Mali is the political context, Ethiopia scores extremely low on the security indicator.

The Nobel committee’s decision to award the 2021 peace prize to journalists Maria Ressa from the Philippines and Dmitrij Muratov from Russia stressed the importance of quality journalism as a prerequisite for democracy and peace. Both countries continue to plunge on the RSF list.

After its invasion of Ukraine, and the ongoing information war, Russia is now ranked 155th, with the situation for press freedom described as “very bad”. Today, parts of the Nobel peace prize committee’s rationale can be read almost as a prelude to what was to come: “A free, independent and fact-based journalism protects against abuse of power, lies and war propaganda”.

Dr Kristin Skare Orgeret is a professor in journalism and media studies at Oslo Metropolitan University, with a particular focus on media in conflict

Dr Bruce Mutsvairo is associate professor at Utrecht University and is investigating the impact of disinformation in exacerbating political conflict in Mali and Ethiopia