Mali journalists despair over ‘invisible war’

Reporters struggle to work as travel bans are enforced and official information, such as death tolls, are not released.

Roadblock in Mali
Malian soldiers prevent journalists and others from venturing north, where French-led troops are fighting [AFP]

Bamako, Mali – 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.

“We are frustrated by the behavior of the military, not letting us go into the field.

– Destin Gnimadi, journalist

“We are frustrated by the behaviour of the military, not letting us go into the field,” he said.

Guerrilla warfare is dirty, by its very nature. Just how irregular or dirty this war is, or whether it is a more conventional war, is difficult to judge with media kept so far from the conflict zone.

There are reports that the armed groups have hundreds of child soldiers in their ranks.

There are no official death tolls either for civilians or soldiers. No-one interviewed by Al Jazeera could say where prisoners of war were being held or how they were being treated.

The International Committee of the Red Cross, the international humanitarian organisation that often has access to prisoners, was similarly unable to comment to media about any prisoners or detention facilities it may have visited.

Julie Remy, from the medical humanitarian organisation Doctors Without Borders (MSF by its French acronym), told Al Jazeera that she did not know where those injured by the fighting were receiving treatment.

While local partners working with MSF had treated 30 people in Timbuktu, no-one injured in the fighting in Gao or the nearby town of Ansongo had come to their facilities for treatment during the fighting there, she said.

“I don’t know what that means in terms of where they are going for treatment,” she said.

A source who had visited the hospital in Gao since the fighting began said he had seen dozens of bodies of rebel fighters killed.

With Gao under their belt, the French and Malian forces’ sights are set next on the remaining rebel strongholds of Kidal and Timbuktu. The alliance of armed groups, which describe themselves as Islamist, have held the towns since April 2011, giving them control over the vast expanses of northern Mali.

French President Francois Hollande is clearly hoping to avoid getting bogged down in a drawn-out conflict that would be unpopular in France and in Mali.

Dr Oumar Mariko, a left-wing politician who has twice run for president, told Al Jazeera that the French were trying to manage the way the war was perceived.

“Their version of events is all that anyone will hear,” he said. “But when this is over, Malians will talk to each other and quickly learn the truth.”

While France will likely retain some kind of presence, the plan appears to be to maintain a 6,000-strong West African force, with support from the African Union, known as AFISMA, to move in to take over from the French and hold the territory that has been re-taken.

The African Union met on Sunday and asked the UN Security Council for logistical support to help deploy the forces quickly.

Leon Panetta, the US defence secretary, said in comments released on Saturday that the US would play “a big role” in providing that support.

Foreign intervention is controversial for many Malians, particularly in the form of an operation where its former colonial occupier is playing such a key role. For most of 2012, the Malian authorities had requested international support – funding, weapons and training – for its own forces instead of bringing in foreign military muscle.

“Most of those African leaders [offering troops] toe the line when it comes to the French agenda,” Mariko said. “They will apply the French agenda, in France’s place.”

Source: Al Jazeera