Mali Conflict: A Challenging Assignment


Peter Townson – Doha Centre for Media Freedom

French military and Malian government forces are restricting access to conflict areas for members of the media, making covering the situation a major challenge.

As violence continues in Mali, the national and international media are finding it increasingly difficult to provide quality coverage of the situation.  The primary reason behind the challenges is the fact that journalists are being forced to stay in the capital city of Bamako, and are not being allowed to travel freely throughout the country.

Only a few journalists have been able to travel “embedded” with foreign forces and those who have tried to venture further afield have been forced to turn back and return to the capital, resulting in a sense of frustration among many of the reporters assigned to cover the tensions in Mali.

Members of the media who have made it to the country have spoken repeatedly of being prevented from accessing the locations they want to visit and speaking to the people they wish to interview.

According to reports, access to the war zones is being blocked by both the transitional government and the French military forces on the ground.

Media freedom shift

Mali had previously been described as a bastion of free speech in Africa, representing a refreshingly open society in terms of media freedom.

However, Islamist insurgency and ongoing fighting has resulted in an erosion of this freedom since March of last year.

“Since then, press freedom has been constantly thwarted. Journalists have been threatened, even kidnapped, editorial staff have been wiretapped and editors and informants called in for interrogation,” Reporters Without Borders (RSF) Africa specialist, Christopher Dreyer recently told Deutsche Welle.

“There have also been armed attacks on radio stations. Several reporters were kidnapped, beaten and seriously injured,” he added

According to a report in Der Speigel in October 2012 by Paul Hyacinthe Mben, detailing “A Trip Through Hell,” access to parts of the north of the country had become close to impossible in recent months.

These issues are making coverage of the conflict in Mali particularly difficult to produce, and to find.

Isolated from the action

The conflict has been described as a “war behind closed doors” as journalists have been forced to stay some 100km from the events unfolding in the north of Mali.  Information has been provided through official lines only, and journalists are faced with reporting state-directed news or no news at all.

France 24 reporter, Julien Sauvaget has expressed his frustration at trying to cover the conflict.

“All armies are like that. None of them jump for joy when journalists want something. They say it’s an issue of security, but it is clear that they also would like to control the flow of information,” Sauvaget explained.

Julian Sauvaget: “We do not want blood, we want to understand and to know without being manipulated by the army and governments.  This is our role, no?”

In a statement on their website, RSF said: “It is imperative that journalists should be free to verify the situation on the ground for themselves without having to make do with the information provided by the authorities of the countries involved in the conflict, especially when the first claims of war crimes by soldiers are being made. The current situation constitutes a grave obstruction to the ability of journalists to do their job.”

“Some journalists have managed to be ’embedded’ with troops. This is a way of covering the fighting but it should not be the only way of reporting on the events surrounding the military intervention. The public should not have to settle for information and video footage acquired under military control or directly provided by the military.”

Rumour mill runs rife

As the search for reliable information becomes more desperate, rumours continue to emerge from different parts of the country and often get transmitted despite sometimes emanating from unverifiable sources.

The recent case of the Malian journalist, Boul Kader Toure was a clear example of this, as his death was widely reported on Saturday.  News of his murder at the hands of Islamists who had accused him of “working for the enemy” was confirmed by various sources, including the Malian Presidential Palace.

However, later the following day it emerged that the journalist was actually still alive and had been interviewed by RFI. Other reports suggested that the Islamist police chief who was reportedly murdered in a revenge killing is also alive.

The difficulty of confirming the death of this journalist and the circumstance surrounding the initial reports is a clear indication of the obstacles to providing quality, verifiable journalistic reports from Mali.

To help media workers find their peers covering the conflict, the French blog site Rezonances has posted a list of journalists and news sites offering reliable information.  Once again, social media has become the main resource for assessing information within and outside a country in times of conflict.

French authorities calling for cooperation

The French Ministries of Defence and Foreign Affairs have issued a joint statement urging journalists to follow the orders of the local authorities in Mali.

They told journalists to respect the safety instructions provided by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Embassy of France in Bamako and French forces, and avoid certain areas of the country, according to their advice.

“Failure to follow these basic rules of prudence would jeopardise not only your safety but the safety of those who are focused on helping you,” it added.

While the details of the ongoing conflict inside Mali might be difficult to ascertain, what is not in any doubt is the fact that the authorities are attempting to control the flow of information to the outside world.

However, with the combination of modern technology, social media and the fact that courageous journalists continue to battle to do their jobs in Mali, the battle to restrict the truth is set to be a major challenge in itself.

Source: DCMF, RSF, Agencies, DW 

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