Gabon: Censorship On Health Of The President And Post-Truth
The debate on the health of Gabon’s President, Ali Bongo, is provoking one of the most important campaigns against fredom of information in the country.
Since his stroke on August 24, 2018 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, appearances and absences of the president have punctuated political life and censorship in the country. Almost all online news sites, which have criticized the lack of transparency surrounding the health of President Ali Bongo, have been censored by the government. This censorship revives debates on the authenticity of the first video released by the Gabonese government in December 2018, a few months after the President’s hospitalization. Internet Sans Frontières investigated the authenticity of this video, which seems to open a post-truth era in Gabon.
Information about the President’s health is censored
Several decisions by the Government suggest a discomfort with the publication of information about the President’s health. Radio France International’s correspondent in Gabon recently saw is accreditation being withdrawn, after he published a report on the physical condition of the president during the parade of August 17, 2019. On September 2 , 2019, Gabonese authorities threatened Bloomberg press agency with judicial reprisals, after it revealed that Ali Bongo was hospitalized in the United Kingdom. These threats against International press follows the censorship of Gabonese news sites that have questionned the real state of the President’s health.
In the spring of 2019, Internet Without Borders alerted and participated in an investigation published by Mother Jones on alleged manipulation of the video of President Bongo’s 2019 New Year’s address, delivered after his stroke. “Was it a deepfake?” Gabon review, one of the sites censored by the HAC, was already asking in January 2019. This video was one of the triggers of the coup attempt of January 6, 2019. In their statement, the perpetrators of the failed coup castigated those who “continue to instrumentalize and objectify the person of Ali Bongo Ondimba by putting in scene a patient deprived of many of his physical and mental faculties. “
It is not easy to detect a deepfake. Deepfake creators use large amounts of image compression and video to scramble their results. This compression masks any artifice that could easily reveal their manipulation. According to the experts to whom Mother Jones spoke in March 2019, it is impossible, given the current deepfake detection technologies, to affirm with certainty that President Bongo’s December 2018 video was a manipulation of images animated by artificial intelligence.
One of them, Aviv Ovadya, head of the Center for Social Media Responsibility at the University of Michigan, said: “If it is very difficult to know if the video is really a deepfake, this possibility remains damaging”. New methods of detection of deepfake have emerged in recent months, they may allow to have a definitive answer. Ali Bongo’s video of December 31, 2019 has become a case study for those interested in the impact of deepfakes in the political life of States.