How misinformation and disinformation harm ICRC’s humanitarian work in Burkina Faso

Article 17 February 2023 Burkina Faso

An independent investigation by a consortium of news organizations resulted in the publication of stories on 16 February 2023 about a disinformation campaign targeting the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Burkina Faso. The ICRC is sharing more information about the incident to further clarify the work we do to help victims of conflict and other situations of violence.

In August 2020 the French magazine Valeurs Actuelles published false accusations against the ICRC. What consequences did the publication of this article have for the ICRC's work?

First, the ICRC takes the issue of misinformation, disinformation and hate speech (often abbreviated as MDH) very seriously, as it can have severe consequences for the people we assist. It can also affect our humanitarian mission to assist and protect communities most affected by conflict and violence.

The publication of the Valeurs Actuelles article had a negative effect on the perception of ICRC's neutrality in Burkina Faso. When the article was republished on a second website, the article provoked violent comments and raised fears for the safety of our team in the country. Fortunately, in the end, we experienced no direct security impact.

Why did former ICRC President Peter Maurer host a news conference on 14 September 2020 in Ouagadougou? Was it because of this article?

The visit of the ICRC president had been planned for a long time before this disinformation campaign was launched, and media interaction is often a part of such trips. We shared a news release that communicated primarily on a recent budget extension for ICRC's work in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. But then-President Maurer was ready to answer questions related to the ICRC dialogue with armed groups, and he gave an interview to AFP on this topic.

The ICRC released a statement in January 2020 about arbitrary arrests and conditions of detention in Burkina Faso. How did the government react?

The overall objective of the ICRC's activities concerning detainees is to prevent enforced disappearances or extra-judicial executions, ill-treatment, and failure to respect fundamental judicial guarantees. We also work to ensure that the dignity and integrity of persons deprived of their liberty are respected and that conditions of detention are in accordance with applicable laws and internationally recognized standards. To do this, we actively work with the authorities to resolve problems and to help them to address not only the consequences of problems but also their causes.

As a complement to these efforts, the ICRC issued a news release regarding the treatment of detainees. That news release was addressed to all stakeholders and not exclusively to any one party. The ICRC endeavors to find solutions to humanitarian problems within the framework of a confidential dialogue with the detaining authorities.

The original Valeurs Actuelles article said the ICRC met with armed groups in Burkina Faso. Is this true?

The ICRC's mandate is to alleviate and prevent the suffering of persons affected by armed conflict and violence wherever they may be, including in areas controlled or influenced by armed groups. Life can be particularly difficult for civilians living in these areas and they can have increased humanitarian and protection needs.

As a humanitarian organization, we take a neutral and impartial approach and engage with all parties to an armed conflict. This means we do not take sides: we provide assistance based solely on humanitarian need and talk to all sides to highlight the importance of respecting humanitarian rules. This is the only way we can be trusted by all parties, whether governments or armed groups.

Is the ICRC secretive about its work with armed groups?

We are not secretive about this aspect of our work. Engaging with armed groups is part of the humanitarian mandate officially given to the ICRC by all state signatories to the Geneva Conventions, and we frequently acknowledge and confirm this humanitarian engagement with all parties to a conflict. While we cannot share the details of our discussions with armed groups as the talks are very sensitive, we are always careful to ensure that everyone understands that this is how the ICRC works.

When we meet with government authorities, for example, we are clear and transparent about this approach. It is very important to us that everyone we are accountable to understands that we engage with armed groups for purely humanitarian reasons. Without this engagement, the ICRC wouldn't be able to reach everyone suffering as a result of conflict or violence.

What's ICRC's overall view on misinformation, disinformation and hate speech?

Misinformation and disinformation can increase people's exposure to risk and vulnerabilities. For example, if displaced people in need of humanitarian assistance are given intentionally misleading information about life-saving services and resources, they can be misdirected away from help and towards harm.<

Hate speech, meanwhile, contributes directly or indirectly to endangering civilian populations' safety or dignity. For example: When online hate speech calls for violence against a minority group, it can contribute to psychological and social harm through harassment, defamation, and intimidation.

Misinformation, disinformation and hate speech can also have severe consequences for the acceptance and safety of humanitarian organisations. False and manipulated information can damage reputations, erode trust and undermine acceptance within communities. This can then have negative consequences on the operational capacities of humanitarian organizations and jeopardize assistance work for people affected by armed conflict or other situations of violence.

For humanitarian organizations to do their work safely, the trust of all stakeholders and communities is essential. If the perception of their work changes, fueled by misinformation online or offline, aid workers can quickly find themselves unable to travel, deliver lifesaving aid, visit detainees or bring news to people who have lost contact with a family member.