After an extended period of relative calm and freedom, the Malian press faced severe threats amid a military coup and an armed insurrection. In March, a junta ousted President Amadou Toumani Touré just weeks before his second and final term would have expired. Touré had been the target of public discontent over setbacks suffered by the army in its fight against ethnic Tuareg separatists of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad in Mali's Saharan north. The rebels allied with hard-line Islamist militants to take advantage of the political turmoil after the coup, seizing Timbuktu and other northern cities and towns. Islamist groups imposed draconian censorship on dozens of radio stations, and shut down at least one. Their orders included bans on music and demands that programming feature Quranic recitations, local journalists said. Journalists operating in rebel and Islamist-controlled areas were also subjected to intense intimidation; those in government-controlled areas faced kidnappings, detentions, and assaults.
Three weeks after France's military intervention in Mali, the war remains largely "without images and without facts," as described by Jean-Paul Mari, special envoy for the newsweekly Le Nouvel Observateur. Although journalists have been allowed to follow French and Malian forces into the towns that have been recovered from armed Islamist groups, the real battlefields and front lines remain off limits.
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.
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