Mali: Free Press is costly

Mali: Free Press is costly

After reporting on women rights and the economy in Mali, Carole and I investigated the state of freedom of the press and the media industry in the country.  We learned that Mali’s Journalists by and large are young, just like Mali’s population of which over 70% of its citizens are under the age of 24 according to the latest UN statistics. While researching the main stream media we also examined the Journalists ‘on the ground’ reporting the news from ground zero in North-Eastern Mali.  The three most highly quoted names in the Malian media are Mr. Serge Daniel, Chief Correspondent for Radio France International (RFI), Mr. Seko Tangara host of the highly popular local TV show ‘Politik’ And Mr. Kassim Traore Malian Correspondent for VOA and the popular Radio station ‘Kledu’ and the influential Le Reporter newspaper.   All three of these men and their reported stories and commentaries are having an immense impact on the development of the Media Industry in Mali and West Africa.

I had the opportunity to speak with all these fine gentlemen over the past month and have featured their comments and insights in this article. Mr. Tangara and Mr. Daniel were both steadfast in their belief that Mali is starting to nurture a culture of an open media based on common values and a faith in the new emerging democracy in Mali.  Mr. Traore on the other hand leveled harsh criticism against the Malian press associations and was especially critical of MINUSMA (the UN’s peacekeeping force in Mali) for its failure to protect Journalists covering Mali’s war-torn northern region. Following is an overview of the conversations and interviews I had with them.

Sekou Tangara: Leading the Charge of West Africa’s Young Journalists

Leading the charge of Mali’s youthful journalists is Sekou Tangara Deputy Secretary General of the Young Reports of Mali and (as mentioned above) host of the immensely popular TV show ‘Politik’ as well as being Information Editor of Africable Télévision.  I interviewed and had several conversations with Mr. Tangara over the past couple of weeks and have featured his opinions and comments in this article.

Mali is a country where journalists can be charged criminally for a variety of reasons especially when reporting on the President, the military and the State Security Services.  In this regard Mr. Tangara is walking a political tightrope when his articles and TV shows are broadcasted in the public domain. Mali does not have legislation guaranteeing media access to official information and the state broadcast service (ORTM) carry nearly exclusive pro-government stories. On the other hand private networks, newspapers and radio can be partisan in nature but the general consensus is that Mali does indeed have a pluralistic media community.

“I think that Mali needs to reform current laws regarding the media. The best way is the decriminalization of Press offenses.”

-Sekou Tangara, host of popular TV show "politik"

According to Freedom House “The two bodies tasked with regulating the media—the High Communications Council and the Committee for Equal Access to the State Media—lack the funding and capacity to function effectively”.  This has caused long delays in local and international journalists receiving proper government accreditation and also has hampered the flow of communications between Malian government agencies and the two main journalist organizations in the country: The Maison de la Presse, a loose umbrella organization for press unions and the National Union of Journalist Reporters (SYJOR).

However according to Mr. Tangara (and Freedom House) the greatest impediment to capacity building for the media in the private sector is the lack of funding, logistical support and the state of Mali’s infrastructure which has chronic electricity shortages which means that radio and TV stations (especially in the north) can only make irregular broadcasts.  Freedom House gives this assessment on their website: “Insufficient funding and access to equipment and electricity continue to prevent many media outlets in Mali from operating at full capacity, particularly in the north. Regular blackouts in Timbuktu and Gao, for example, force many radio stations to limit broadcasts to evenings, when power is available. Poor working conditions, including low or non-existent salaries, often lead journalists into unethical practices.”  I asked Mr. Tangara if he agreed with this assessment from Freedom House and he responded “I agree with the statement of Freedom House. Media in Mali are not some real enterprises. The governmental ones seem to be regular even if the journalists think they are not free. As to the private ones, there is no career plan, no collective bargaining. This is the main threat private media are faced in Mali. Political men often try to profit from this precocious situation by manipulating the media. In these cases journalists have the choice: either accept unethical practices or live and work in difficult conditions”.

I certainly agree with Mr. Tangara that the development of a strong independent free press requires proper business models such as we have in the West. Mr. Tangara’s point about the development of journalistic unions in Mali went further when he stated: “The best journalists are leaving newsrooms for other horizons more secure according to them. In my view this is more dangerous than any sequestration of journalist. Journalists need a collective bargaining.” I would have to agree that if young talented journalists cannot make ends meet in Mali then they will vote with their feet and leave their positions for better career advancement.

Mr. Tangara was generally upbeat when he stated the following about the state of freedom of the press in Mali: “Journalists have always been free in Mali despite isolated attempts to make them afraid. Press freedom is constant because it has been obtained in the blood, during 1991 January and March events”. This statement alone confirms to me that Mr. Tangara is a dedicated Journalist who is a leader and inspiration to the scores of budding young journalists in Mali.

Mr. Tangara also gave his opinions to me on a range of topics that included Canada’s foreign aid objectives and the development of women rights in Africa. After speaking personally with Mr. Tangara I can highly recommend that any person, company or government that wants to read up on Mali must follow his articles and TV shows.

Serge Daniel - Mali’s Most Influential Journalist

The most frequently quoted Journalist on the Mali conflict is Serge Daniel, Radio France International’s (RFI) and France 24’s Chief Correspondent for Mali and the surrounding region. A 52 year old Malian-Beninese, Mr. Daniel without doubt is the most senior and trusted African Journalist in the international French media; his stories are also quoted frequently in the Western mainstream media including CNN, BBC and numerous American publications. Since the UN sanctioned peacekeeping forces (lead by France) removed AQIM and Boko Haram from the Timbuktu region of North-Eastern Mali in 2013, it has become a hot bed of terrorism, human trafficking and illicit narcotic distribution. No one in the media community knows this situation more intimately than Serge Daniel.

While the Western Anglo mainstream media describes the ongoing battle against AQIM and Boko Haram in a ‘Black and White’ context, Mr. Daniel’s reporting reveals a much more realistic and complex picture of this  highly volatile region where numerous ‘Non-State Actors’ operate with impunity and violence and social upheaval are the order of the day.  In his 2014 book "Les Mafias du Mali” (‘The Mafia of Mali’) Mr. Daniel paints a heart breaking picture of the Sahel (Western Sahara region) where human suffering is rampant and smugglers, bandits, criminals and terrorists flourish.  According to Mr. Daniel’s reports over the past few years, Mali’s abundant natural resources has kept France (and its formerly state owned oil company ‘Total’) intricately involved in Malian politics for the last 50 years followed by the newest player over the past decade- The United States. With billions of USD at stake in terms of oil, gold, minerals and agricultural commodity outputs (such as cotton), the threat of international terrorism and the emergence of ISIS in the Sahel,  France the US and NATO countries are all scrambling to stabilize this highly unstable region before it engulfs all of Africa.  Mr. Daniel’s no-nonsense aproach to describing and reporting on the players and chronological unfolding events in Mali since the coup in 2012 are a ‘must read’ for any Journalist being assigned to the region.

In an extensive interview of questions and answers between myself and Mr. Daniel, he gave his narrative on a wide set of issues besetting Mali’s population of 16 million including harsh criticism of Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, the French military and the UN Mission in Mali (‘MINUSMA’). Mr. Daniel argues that since the French military intervention in Northern Mali in 2013 that the region has become a major third party distribution transit point for illicit narcotics and human trafficking. He claims that “drugs have been pouring” into Northern Mali since 2013 and that “The Sahel has become a real panacea of ​​fire in the world.” The US State Department and the US Drug Enforcement Administration agree; Mali has been cited by both US government agencies as being one of the worst areas in Africa for Human Trafficking and illicit narcotic distribution.

“States, and the international community, from my point of view, sometimes refuse to see reality in the face”. 

Serge Daniel, Chief Correspondent, Western Africa, RFI

Mr. Daniel surmises that MINUSMA and especially the French army should be the "the nuclear weapon of deterrence" against terrorists and criminals in the Sahel region but that they “cannot be everywhere” and do not possess either the “means” or “will” to accomplish their peacekeeping mission.   The abject poverty of the region and refugee crises caused by the conflict has, according to Mr. Daniel, made Northern Mali the “bed of terrorism”.

With the Canadian Government still pondering how to spend CIDA funds in Mali, the Prime Minister should take serious note of Mr. Daniel’s bleak assessment of the transnational social ills mercilessly plaguing Northern Mali. Mr. Daniel states that “Wagons” of “Cocaine”“Cannabis”“Human Beings” and “Cigarettes” are transported through Northern Mali on a daily basis and that illicit smuggling networks have actually increased since the French intervention of 2013.

Reporting on the daily events from Gao in Eastern Mali to the very North of the country in a town called Taodenni which straddles the highly dangerous Algerian border region, Mr. Daniel takes great risks to bring the news live as it is happening.   Mr. Daniel has concluded that combatting poverty is a key ingredient to a solution in the region and that “as long as the countries of the Sahel do not take charge of this direct fight on the ground, it will not work. The UN peacekeepers, the French military? In my opinion, this is not a sustainable solution. A Sahel army is needed against terrorism. It’s very important.”  I assume that Mr. Daniel is referring to the support of the neighboring countries of Algeria, Mauritania, Niger and Burkina Faso. This will be no easy feat to accomplish.

As to the Mali peace agreement of 2015 Mr. Daniel opinionated that the agreement “is out of order” and “obsolete”. This is an undeniably disjointing statement coming from a man who influences much of the daily news from the area. Mr. Daniel believes that the international community was misled and that supposed collusion between the ethnic Tuareg MNLA insurgency group and the Islamists (AQIM and Boko Haram) is a falsehood.  He further claims that the upcoming peace conference being arranged by Algeria is a non-starter because the “Armed Groups“ won’t be attending, that “there is a lack of leadership to properly implement the agreement” and that due to the presidential elections in Mali in 2018 the agreement “will be more and more difficult to implement”.  Mr. Daniel’s says that Northern Mali is “controlled between” the Islamists and the various Tuareg insurgents. He went on further to assert that “In the history of mankind, there has never been a reunification of a country through dialogue. It is either by war, remember Vietnam, or it is by collapse, remember the Berlin Wall.” Given the current situation in Mali this historical analogy is indeed a sobering thought.

On the question of freedom of speech in Mali Mr. Daniel was optimistic and did not “share” the notion “that the freedom of press in Mali is limited” and that he feels “good” in Mali “even if the freedom of the press is every day a fight”. Mr. Daniel also alleges that “it is clear that national radio and television do not give the same time to the government and the opposition” and is highly critical of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita who the international community initially saw as a “savior” but has, turned out to be a “disappointment”. The upcoming 2018 elections in Mali and the daily threats of terrorism that the Sahel region brings to Europe and the United States have catapulted Mr. Daniel to the forefront of international media  coverage in Mali and the Western Sahara region.  I highly recommend my readers to follow Mr. Serge Daniel’s daily reports from Mali. They will not be disappointed.

Kassim Traore - Covering war in Mali

No other journalist or correspondent has been more critical of media freedom in Mali than front line VOA Correspondent Kassim Traore.  During the terror attack of the Radisson Blu Hotel in Bamako in November 2015, Mr. Traore (who also reports for the popular Radio station ‘Kledu’ and the influential  Le Reporter newspaper) was in a building 100 meters away from the ground zero attack.  His reports were carried by all the international wire services.  He is without doubt the most high profile advocate for journalistic freedoms and women empowerment in Mali.

When I asked Mr. Traore if he thought that the Canadian government should designate additional funding for programs that support women's education in Africa his answer was straight bottom line: “Yes, especially for rural women, they make up the majority of women. They are forgotten, rarely taken into account in educational programs. But Canada needs to be closer to the beneficiaries, because they do not often have everything that is given on their behalf.”  One cannot agree more with Mr. Traore that Prime Minister Trudeau must ensure that the impending multi-million dollar AID program being considered for Mali must have strong ‘on the ground’ oversight.

“MINUSMA…is the doctor after death”. – VOA Correspondent Kassim Traore.
In regards to MINUSMA’s supporting press freedoms in Mali, Mr. Traore alleged that “Journalists did not win anything with MINUSMA” and that “MINUSMA…is the doctor after death”.  He reminded me of the case of Birama Toure a Malian Journalist “missing since 29 January 2016” and accused MINUSMA of doing “nothing” about it. Mr. Traore further lambasted MINUSMA regarding the safety of Journalists in Mali and was quoted stating that “the safety of journalists is the last concern of the MINUSMA (because) even if you use a MINUSMA to go to the front in case of problem the MINUSMA is not responsible (because) each journalist signs a document attesting this before boarding a MINUSMA plane.

Mr. Traore also had harsh words for the different press associations in Mali claiming that “journalists are divided” in Mali and that “The professional press associations are no longer fighting for the betterment of journalists' conditions” and that “We have more associations to defend of journalists, because journalists are divided.”  When asked if he agreed with a scathing report issued by ‘Freedom House’ last year on freedom of the press in Mali, Mr. Traore agreed with the report and stated that freedom of the press is a “problem ..everywhere in Mali and nothing is (being) done to get the press out of this situation.

The sobering words that Mr. Traore’s media articles and reports have brought to the national media and political narrative of Mali should be considered ‘compulsory reading’ material for any new Canadian diplomats or senior military officers who will be posted to Mali in the coming months. After hearing out Mr. Traore’s take on the situation of media freedom in Mali I think its high time that the Canadian Government do a serious ‘Reality Check’ on its current foreign policy programs in Mali and West Africa.