Mali: Independent media one of the first casualties in coup

Regulation & Policy

Mutinous soldiers who seized power last week from Mali's President Amadou Toumani Touré also occupied the headquarters of the state radio and TV broadcaster and interrupted other TV and radio shows, say Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and Human Rights Watch.Some citizens turned to Twitter to get their news updates, reports the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

According to RSF, soldiers stormed into state broadcaster ORTM on 21 March, firing into the air and forcing all personnel to leave. Broadcasting by all privately-owned radio stations in the capital, Bamako, was suspended for at least a day, says RSF. In its place, soldiers repeatedly aired a communiqué announcing a nationwide curfew and the suspension of the constitution and state institutions.

"Whether this is a real coup or just a mutiny, we are appalled that soldiers have occupied the state broadcaster and taken control of its broadcasts," RSF said. "As is often the case in such circumstances, control of news and information is primordial and the media are among the mutineers' first targets."

But the unexpected unrest prompted demands for reliable and contextual information. CPJ documented how news unfolded on Twitter. For instance, Phil Paoletta, an expat based in Bamako, offered some advice for those just tuning in on 21March. "Anyone paying attention to #Mali for the first time-pls know that there is a lot more to this country than what you will read+see+hear today," he tweeted.

CPJ explained, "While the future of Mali's hitherto free press is unclear, the Twitter narrative demonstrated the ways in which traditional media are increasingly less relevant."

Even the President used his Twitter account to dismiss reports of trouble. According to RSF, one presidential tweet read, "There has been no coup d'état in Mali. It is just a mutiny."The state newspaper, "L'Essor", made no mention of the coup on the following day, reports CPJ.

A Malian print media journalist told RSF, "The situation is very confused... It is a problem within the military. Some soldiers are driving around the city firing in the air. No one knows what to believe."According to CPJ, until the coup, Mali had been one of the most stable and successful democracies in Africa, complete with free and abundant (though not always professional) media. The last time IFEX members documented an attack on the Malian media was 2008.

The mutinous soldiers seized power on 22 March from Touré, saying they wanted to launch a more effective response to an ethnic Tuareg rebellion in the north. Since the outbreak of the armed conflict in northern Mali in mid-January, some 200,000 Malians, many of them Tuaregs, have fled their homes, most to neighbouring Algeria, Burkina Faso, and Niger, reports Human Rights Watch.

The African Union has already suspended Mali, and the United Nations, the United States and other countries have called for a return to constitutional order.

Touré was due to step down in coming weeks after serving two terms. A presidential election had been scheduled for 29 April.