Mali journalists despair over ‘invisible war’

Al Jazeera reports: Since France launched its military intervention in Mali two weeks ago, the combined Malian and French forces have managed to quickly retake much of the country.

They have done so almost exclusively beyond the eyes of the media, an exceptional feat in the age of Twitter and livestreaming. Where journalists have been allowed to “embed” with French troops, they have been kept well away from operations and are restricted to marginal stories about logistics.

“In times of conflict, it is up to journalists and the media, and not the military, to determine the risks that they are willing to take to gather information,” the international media organisation Reporters Without Borders said in a statement denouncing the “media blackout” imposed by French and Malian military.

French officials have organised no press conferences in Bamako. Their press contingent in Bamako consists of a one-man band, whose main function is to refer media queries to Paris.

The Malian army has likewise restricted media access, barring journalists and human rights organisations from areas safely in its hands such as Konna and Sevare for some days. The lack of freedom of movement has also drawn criticism from aid groups, who say people are being blocked from fleeing the conflict.

On top of the roadblocks, communications have been cut wherever operations are underway, making it impossible to independently verify what is taking place.

Destin Gnimadi, a journalist at the daily Malian newspaper Le Prétoire, told Al Jazeera that the Malian defence ministry rarely gives press conferences or shares any information with the national media.

Jean-Paul Marthoz adds: The French army is often called la Grande Muette, or “the Great Silent.” The war in Mali confirms the French military’s well-deserved reputation of being secretive about front-line actions. “Locking the information is more in the culture of the French army than of the U.S. army,” says Maurice Botbol, director of La Lettre du Continent. In the first two weeks of military operations against Islamist militant groups in Mali, the French army has released only a blurry video of an air attack at an undisclosed location.

International journalists who have flown to Mali are kept far from the front lines. No journalist has been embedded with the Special Forces that have carried out the first assaults. Most reporters who receive the authorization to accompany the troops are limited to coverage of marginal stories, such as military preparations on the Bamako airport or the “progress of the troops to the North,” very far from the battlefields.

The roads to the North are blocked by a succession of checkpoints manned by the Malian army. “They are very nervous,” says Gérard Grizbec, a reporter with the public service TV channel France 2. “They have received stern orders from the French forces: ‘Don’t let yourself being overtaken by journalists.’ They usually ask us where we’re going, check our passport, and request an accreditation of the Malian Communications Ministry.”

And then they often turn the media away.

“All the reporters that travel to the North come back frustrated and furious to Bamako,” complains Jean-Paul Mari, special envoy for the newsweekly Le Nouvel Observateur. “This is a war without images and without facts.” On January 22, the French channel i>Télé devoted a whole report to the difficulty of reporting. “We try to outwit the Malian army,” says its editor-in- chief, Lucas Menget. “It is like a cat-and-mouse game.” And up to now, it is a losing game for the press.

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