Friday, October 24, 2014

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Mali's War, Unseen

How media restrictions and news coverage without context help maintain the narrative of France's 'triumphant' Malian intervention.
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A French ambassador is warmly greeted on a visit to Ouéléssébougou in southern Mali in March 2013. Photograph by Culture223.

Menacingly shrouded al-Qaeda fighters…Paratroops descending on the ‘fabled desert city of Timbuktu’…Jubilant throngs of kids, grinning…People waving or even wearing the French ‘tricolore’…Women adorned in brightly-colored traditional dress feting French soldiers…The French president joyfully mobbed…Grim-faced amputee survivors of Islamist [in]justice…Mali “in flames”…And, yes, a few dead people…

These ‘snapshots’ of Mali’s war define what most of the world has learned of the ongoing conflict in the West African state. As the French daily newspaper Liberation observes, most of the photos available “have the feeling of having been produced by the school of fine arts of war”.

The dominant narrative

These images very comfortably fit and serve the dominant narrative of the origins and expected outcome of France’s military intervention in its former colony – namely that ‘Operation Serval’, launched on 11 January 2013 to repel aggression by ‘terrorist’ forces, will quickly conclude with victory over brutal fundamentalists, aided by warmly-welcomed and enlightened foreigners.

This narrative seems at least in part quite plausible, reflecting an elite and mainstream media consensus. It suits audiences accustomed to conflict reporting that offers dramatic and simplified military-oriented coverage set among places and issues which they know little about.

This is especially crucial in France, where people are being asked to expend treasure and risk lives. The plain morality tale of the demonised enemies (here hard-line Islamists) and grateful allies is utilised to retain public support for the mission. Yet this dominant narrative fails to fully paint a situation that is far more complex, or the challenges that might prove far more costly than early official assurances suggest.

This moralistic simplification is not new in conflict coverage. Governments, militaries and non-state actors always seek to control information and shape public perceptions to their advantage – most urgently during conflicts. However, what is striking is that France is deploying precisely the opposite military/media relations strategy to that recently used by the US and UK. Rather than embedding many reporters with front-line units to build journalists’ rapport with soldiers (and, conveniently, monitor their access), France has banned nearly all media from the combat zones.

Despite many correspondents’ repeated and sometimes risky efforts to reach the front lines, there are virtually no first-hand journalistic accounts of the fighting in Mali. Videos of fierce fire-fights – with all their attendant noise, smoke and confusion – only appeared in late February after recently expelled Islamist guerrillas re-infiltrated the city of Gao, by then thought to be far behind the front lines.

Even the most casual media consumers are now accustomed to and expect such images. More than a decade of compelling combat footage provided by embedded correspondents in Afghanistan and Iraq (and more recently from embattled Syria, although more often by citizen reporters or militia fighters) have convinced viewers that we can access, on-demand, the latest horrific moments of faraway conflicts.

French media organisations have publicised the restrictions on their reporting (as well as sometimes criticising their colleagues’ offerings). Many have complained vigorously, as have press freedom groups. “The French authorities, supported by their Malian counterparts, have achieved their ‘zero image of the war front’ media objective for Operation Serval by strictly controlling access to information”, the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders stated in mid-February.

“Bewildering”: Mali in no context

For the most part, the depiction of French troops being welcomed by most Malians to drive out Islamists appears accurate. However, the much larger story of why war has come to Mali, and how its internal conflicts might be addressed, are absent. One can find more serious and sometimes contentious analysis elsewhere. But the dominant narrative offers little understanding of how war enveloped Mali in the first place – a nation long held (and arguably misrepresented) as a peaceful democratic beacon amidst a sea of countries torn by conflict or ruled by despots.

The lack of context in most reports is unsurprising, especially in television news clips and other short-form journalism. Yet, unfettered access to the front lines might even cut context and skew perceptions by solely trumpeting the latest, most frenetic ‘bang-bang’ video. For those who remain confused by events, The Atlantic Online offered a visual aid tellingly entitled: “A Map of the Bewildering Mali Conflict”. As a map it is pretty, but nonetheless leaves neophyte Mali-watchers no more apprised of the causes or consequences of the conflict. And, indeed, still bewildered, as the map’s caption itself closes by asking, “Just what are the French getting themselves into?”.

Many articles (even brief ones) make mention of France’s history as Mali’s former colonial master. But other crucial context – such as Mali’s current existence as a country of multiple ethnicities that has for decades seen rebellion simmer and flare among the marginalised nomadic desert Tuareg peoples – is rarely included. Nor is the fact that modern Mali is a colonial creation. Its frontiers were declared by 19th Century imperial mapmakers, and it borders seven similarly-fabricated countries. All of these are currently experiencing various degrees of political and ethnic unrest, and their fear of Islamist 'contagion' is very real.

The notion that France’s intervention might be motivated by reasons beyond the desire to protect Malians and the wider world from violent Islamist extremism is rarely voiced. It is mostly left to small leftist groups to offer an alternative view and point out (at least fairly accurately) that France has enduring economic interests in West and Central Africa. The uranium deposits crucial to France’s nuclear industry found in Mali’s eastern neighbour Niger certainly merit mention, especially since that country has also experienced ethnic-based Tuareg rebellions.

Another dissenting voice is Iran’s official PressTV, which ran the headline: “France war in Mali: Neo-imperialist grab dressed up in ‘war on terror’ rhetoric”. Even if many of its reports predictably unveil vast Western Capitalist/Neo-Imperialist/Crusader conspiracies behind every sand dune, they do offer an interesting contrast to headlines like “In pictures: Why Malians now love France” from the BBC.

Don’t show us the flames of war

The vast preponderance of images offered recently from Mali are actually ‘post-conflict’ or from outside the conflict zones. When video footage of people reportedly executed by the Malian Army as suspected rebels or possible sympathisers was aired on French television, France’s official Supreme Audiovisual Council warned against showing such images, “to ensure compliance with the principle of human dignity”.

Yet French media seem prepared to defy the broadcast watchdog. A senior news director asked, “I would like to know exactly if this is a new doctrine that we say ‘attention, don’t show the victims’”. An interesting question is whether it was actually the politically-sensitive nature of alleged revenge killings by Malian government forces (going completely against official narratives) which prompted the French broadcasting council to object.

A few other images have also caused controversy, including one of a French soldier in a bandana with a skull design over his face. This photo alone should have evoked a panoply of commentary. The mask, donned by the solider against dust raised by a helicopter, is based on ‘Ghost’, a popular character in the top-selling video war-game series Call of Duty. How we – and young men especially – are conditioned to consider conflict by pervasive war-gaming is increasingly debated.

Meanwhile, the cross-cultural context is also rich: as part of the Call of Duty character’s complicated back-story, Ghost’s death mask seems to reference Mexico’s zestfully macabre Dia de los Muertos festival. The photo was jarring, and profoundly ‘counter-narrative’. A French colonel scrambled to proclaim French forces “are not messengers of death” in Mali. And photo-evidence of alleged revenge by Malian troops made grimmer viewing – even without much context.

But the majority of the proffered images are achingly beautiful – as one online compilation exemplifies. After touring with Malians at toil and at play (“mostly in the south, where photographers are able to work” the introduction explains), we reach the conflict in only the last dozen or so shots of the 41-photo set. And nearly all the photos with soldiers are fairly static, and might as well show training exercises. Only the closing shot – after proceeding through a click-through warning of its “graphic content” – brings any real inkling of the terrible costs of war. This is a powerful image of death, made vividly and mundanely human by what appears to be the victim’s sandals, lying undisturbed by his feet.

Notable in this set are two images that present people framed by smoke and fire. Neither, as the captions frankly admit, have anything to do with the conflict: a marketplace accident, and the annual burning off of sugar cane fields. The BBC also used the fiery sugar cane fields in a story, but with the caption, “It will be some time before life in northern Mali returns to normal”. This is surely true. But the photo depicts an unremarkable scene (including an archetypical donkey, and not even in the north), exotic to most viewers, yet utterly unconnected to the conflict.

No matter. Photo editors everywhere (and their audiences!) are drawn as moths to flames. And if fighters keep correspondents from the actual fires of war, some other blaze will serve and sell. The French Army would shrug, contentedly enough. To paraphrase words ascribed to the turn-of-the 20th-Century American press baron William Randolph Hearst, “You furnish the [flaming] pictures, I’ll furnish the war”.

This article was originally published here by thevisionmachine.com.

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