Terrorism and political instability (with two military coups in less than a year in 2020 and 2021) undermine the safety of journalists and their access to information. The April 2021 abduction of French reporter Olivier Dubois. who was held hostage for 711 days, has highlighted the dangers to which media professionals are exposed.
The number of media outlets increased dramatically after the fall of the Moussa Traoré dictatorship in 1991. Mali now has around 200 newspapers, more than 500 radio stations and several dozen TV channels, including regional ones. These new media outlets compete with the state media – the radio and TV broadcaster ORTM and the newspaper L'Essor. The media’s news coverage and programming were really diverse until the permanent suspension of international media outlets RFI and France 24 in April 2022. A Malian TV channel was suspended in October 2022 after criticising the ruling junta.
In theory, the media and journalists are free to cover the government, and the privately owned media are relatively independent. But, in practice, journalism has been made much more difficult by the political situation and the tougher stance taken by the ruling junta. The pressure for “patriotic” news coverage is growing. In November 2022, a journalist received serious threats for contributing to a report on the presence of the Russian Wagner militia in the country. The accreditation process for foreign journalists is very intrusive and threatens the confidentiality of their sources. In early 2022, a French journalist was deported within 24 hours after his arrival. The High Authority for Communication (HAC), Mali’s media regulator, and the state-owned media do as they are told by government officials, who can dismiss those put in charge of them.
The media’s activity is governed by the press law, which determines the conditions in which they operate. But the press law is vague, does not define media offences and contains no provisions about online media. A revision of this obsolete legal framework has been under way for several years. Journalists are awaiting new laws that will abolish prison sentences for press offences, institutionalise state aid for the media, and improve access to information and the identification of journalists and media professionals. The state-owned media continue to have easier access to state-held information than privately owned media.
Mali’s journalists and media outlets lead a precarious economic existence, which makes them vulnerable to influence and corruption. Their difficulties have been increased by a decline in advertising revenue due to the pandemic and the total cessation of government aid for the media during the past four years.
Intercommunal conflicts, extremism and the presence of armed groups limit journalistic freedom, especially in northern and central Mali. The media are exposed to attacks based on gender, class and ethnicity. These social and cultural constraints encourage self-censorship.
Working outside the capital, Bamako, is now extremely risky for journalists, as evidenced by the case of Olivier Dubois, a French reporter who was held hostage for nearly two years by the al-Qaeda–affiliated Support Group for Islam and Muslims (JNIM) after his abduction in the northeastern city of Gao in April 2021. Two journalists are currently missing in Mali. The presence of armed groups and the threat of violence put journalists under pressure in the country’s different regions while, in the capital, Bamako-based reporter Birama Touré’s disappearance in 2016 (and probable death in a secret state security prison) served as a reminder that the state sometimes resorts to deadly violence to silence a journalist. Russia’s growing influence in Mali and the arrival of mercenaries from the Russian paramilitary company Wagner presage an increase in disinformation and darker days for journalists, as was the case after their deployment in the Central African Republic in 2018.