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Dealing with fake press releases for the media in Sierra Leone

Fake press releases are becoming frequent in Sierra Leone.  Depending on the number of events happening in the country, there will be a flurry of press releases from different government or private bodies flooding social media. 

The tricky part is sorting them out and determining which is true or false before considering their news value (s) and publishing. 

In Sierra Leone today, many fake press releases are done to mimic the work of the Petroleum Regulatory Agency’s (PRA) release because, amongst other government institutions, the agency is in the spotlight more as a result of the review of prices of petroleum products.

PRA is responsible for regulating the downstream petroleum sector in Sierra Leone, regulating oil marketers and reviewing price regimes in collaboration with other key bodies, including the Ministry of Trade and the Ministry of Finance.

On several occasions, as evident in the screenshots below, the template of the agency’s

release announcing the new price of petroleum products has been dubbed and released to go viral, only for the agency to come a few hours later to deny it. 

Dealing with fake press releases for the media in Sierra Leone
Dealing with fake press releases for the media in Sierra Leone
As seen in the documents, it is difficult to discern a fake from the real one. 

Election and Misinformation

Dealing with fake press releases for the media in Sierra Leone
A woman casting her vote in the 2018 general election. Credit: Getty Images.

Every election cycle presents a fresh opportunity for misinformation to thrive. More and more countries are struggling to deal with it; misinformation is threatening the biggest democracies today in many parts of the world; Brazil, India, the US, and many more.

With elections just a few months away in Sierra Leone and the heightened curiosity of media audiences for election information, there is a ripe atmosphere for misinformation to thrive.

Sierra Leone’s information landscape will be more and more polluted with misinformation because of the growing internet connectivity in the country.

According to Dataportal, by the end of 2022, over 2.67 million people had access to the internet from a population of just over 7.5 million people. 

Recently, credible media institutions fell prey to a fake press release about the elections. On December 13, 2022, a fake press release in circulation claimed that the Electoral Commission for Sierra Leone (ECSL) had released its “Election Time Table” for the 2023 General elections, and a “fake” timetable was published. 

Dealing with fake press releases for the media in Sierra Leone
The fake election timetable is in circulation.

ECSL is the body responsible for conducting all national elections in Sierra Leone. Daily, the institution communicates election-related issues, from changes to updates around electoral matters.

A day after the fake publication of the “Election Time Table” on December 14, 2022, Exclusive Newspaper published a story titled “ECSL Elections Timetable Out.”

Dealing with fake press releases for the media in Sierra Leone

Similarly, a popular news website, Sierraloaded, published the same story on the day the “fake press release” went viral. This post has since garnered over 2,940 views since published.

Unlike Sierraloaded, there is no credible data to show how many people may have read Exclusive Newspapers on that day. However, the paper is among the fastest-selling newspapers in the country, according to vendors. 

ECSL has since confirmed with Epic Radio that the release was fake and was not authored by them. Besides their verbal denial, ECSL published a press release on the same date the release was in circulation, denying its authenticity.

An excerpt of the release, signed by Edmund S. Alpha (Commissioner-in-charge) and stamped by the Commission, noted, “Such an approved document from the Electoral Commission for Sierra Leone is normally stamped and dated accordingly to prove its authenticity. Hence the purported timelines do not in any way reflect the policy decision of the commission.”

Dealing with fake press releases for the media in Sierra Leone
Dealing with fake press releases for the media in Sierra Leone
A screenshot of the publication in their official media WhatsApp group shows.

Another clear proof is that this so-called “Election Timetable” was not published on any of ECSL platforms, Twitter, or their website, which has a dedicated section for posting Press Releases.

On Friday, January 28, 2023, ECSL published an authentic election timetable. The Chief Electoral Commissioner, Mohamed Konneh, broke the news on his Twitter handle.

ECSL officials also shared it in their official media WhatsApp group.

Dealing with fake press releases for the media in Sierra Leone
A screenshot of their post on their WhatsApp group.

A fake press release on the timeline of election activities is enough to spread misinformation and cause chaos further down the line. With five months to the election, this fake “Election Time Table” and media publications about it can be used as a reference to justify future confusion. Neither Exclusive nor Sierraloaded has since published a retraction to the story. 

In the quest to put out content for publication or broadcasting, media houses must take greater care than anyone else in the information ecosystem, given how much audience they can reach with just one publication or broadcast.

Ordinary people are not just the target of misinformation; journalists and media houses are susceptible too. When mainstream media houses publish misleading information, they lend credibility to that material.

How can media houses ensure they don’t fall for false releases?

If you are a journalist, how do you stay ahead of the curve and not be susceptible to publishing or broadcasting misleading information?

  • Authentic/trusted sources

Journalists should always try to verify news and press releases from authentic sources; one of the ready-made trusted sources available is the institution itself that the news is about. PRA and ECSL both used their different platforms to debunk misinformation; check these platforms or put a call through to their spokesperson.

  • Stamp and signature  

Credible information released for public consumption has a signature and stamp assigned to it; journalists should always look for that. The so-called “Election Timetable” was not signed or stamped to authenticate it. Among several other markers, this is key to proving or disproving any document’s authenticity.

  • Check for spelling errors

It is typical for fake releases to have spelling errors. Look out for this red flag in every copy you come across. 

Experts opinion

Ophaniel Gooding, a journalist and fact-checker with Salone Fact-Checker, said journalists must look for red flags when they see press releases.

“Look for red flags; be wary of press releases that contain exaggerated claims, overly promotional language, or little to no supporting evidence,” he said.

Adding that: “Check the facts: Fact-check the information in the press release, including quotes and statistics,”

Media Scholar and Lecturer at the University of Sierra Leone, Dr Tonya Musa, said cross-checking facts in a press release is as important as checking the release’s authenticity.

“Journalists should check and cross-check any information they get from social media. If they cross-check, that can lead to accuracy and fairness. It is also good for them to do so for them to maintain credibility,” Dr Musa said.

The researcher produced this fact-check per the DUBAWA 2023 Kwame KariKari Fellowship partnership with Epic Radio in Sierra Leone to facilitate the ethos of “truth” in journalism and enhance media literacy in Sierra Leone.

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