With parliamentary speaker Dioncounda Traoré newly installed as interim president, Reporters Without Borders looks back at the past three weeks of turmoil in Mali since the 22 March coup d’état and, in particular, its impact on media freedom and the country’s journalists.
“The nationwide chaos and ensuing grave problems – including partition of the country, human rights violations, displaced persons and violence – have not spared the media and have dealt a serious setback to press freedom,” Reporters Without Borders said.
“The past three weeks have been marked by threats and attacks on journalists, heavy-handed arrests, difficulty accessing information, ransacking of media premises and destruction of equipment. We urge the new authorities, who are supposed to reestablish political institutions, to try to guarantee the safety of journalists, their access to news sources and respect for media freedom throughout the country.”
Almost total news blackout in the north
Almost no news about the situation in the north, currently controlled by various armed groups, is reaching the south or the outside world. Only one privately-owned radio station, located in Timbuktu, is currently operating in the north.
Journalists normally based in Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal have fled the region seeking refuge in the capital, Bamako, or in neighbouring countries such as Niger. As a result, there is little detailed information about the situation on the ground, including the humanitarian situation and conditions for the civilian population.
In view of the growing security threats, some western governments including the French foreign ministry are advising journalists not to visit northern Mali because of the presence of “terrorists of all types.”
Reporters Without Borders is always opposed to the idea of no-go areas for the media and news blackouts, but it is aware of the current dangers in northern Mali and understands that a minimum of safety is essential for media personnel. It is up to news organizations to decide what is appropriate and to take all the necessary precautions.
After several days of daily news broadcasts about events in Gao, a northern city occupied by Islamist and Tuareg groups, local radio journalist Malick Alioune Maïga was given a beating by members of the rebel Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA). According to a video obtained by AFP , the rebels punished him for “talking about them” in his accounts of looted buildings and prison breakouts.
(Source : AFPTV)
Problems at national broadcaster, violence in Bamako
The state-owned national radio and TV broadcaster ORTM in Bamako was ransacked and suffered a lot of damage immediately after the coup. Cameras and personal effects were stolen and computers were smashed. The employees are back at work, despite considerable production and broadcasting difficulties, but they are still under the control of the military, who continue to occupy ORTM’s premises.
Ibrahim Famakan Coulibaly, the head of the National Union of Malian Journalists (UNAJOM), told Reporters Without Borders he was very worried about “this serious problem, which must be resolved following the new president’s installation.”
As visiting French journalist Omar Ouahmane of France Culture returned to his hotel opposite the ORTM building on the night of 28 March, he was attacked by pro-coup soldiers, who threatened to kill him and left him tied to a tree all night because RFI had broadcast interview with ousted president Amadou Toumani Touré. His ordeal ended only when an officer ordered his release at around 6 am.
Two other foreign journalists working for the Associated Press and BBC and two Malian journalists were detained and taken to Kati military barracks, 15 kilometers away from Bamako on 29 March as they were trying to interview the ousted president. The military said they were arrested for being in a “sensitive area.” They were released later the same day.
Reporters Without Borders hopes that this kind of incident will end as a result of the efforts to restore normality in the south.
Other media spared
Aside from ORTM, all the media and journalists in the south are now managing to work normally, despite the lack of information about the political situation in the north.
Until now, Mali had always been one of the five leading African countries as regards respect for journalists and media freedom and was ranked 25th out of 179 countries in the 2011-2012 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index. The events of the past three weeks have dealt a major blow to this positive image.
Photo: Malian soldier (AFP/Kambou Sia)