Attacks on the Press 2001: Mali

Although Mali’s press laws include punitive presumption-of-guilt standards, the media environment is reasonably liberal compared with many other African countries. Mali also has a strikingly diverse press corps, with about 40 private newspapers, some in French and others in vernacular languages, and about 100 radio stations, one fifth of them unlicensed.

Mali’s only television network is state-run, however, and the government has failed to implement a licensing regime that was included in a progressive broadcasting law passed nine years ago. The Internet is still in its infancy, mainly because landline telephone service is erratic.

On March 26, Malians commemorated the 10th anniversary of the popular uprising that brought down dictator Moussa Traoré in 1991. Meanwhile, at least five politicians from the ruling party announced they would challenge President Alpha Oumar Konar in the presidential elections scheduled for 2002.

In July, the government eliminated jail as a penalty for ordinary libel, although libel is still classified as a criminal offense. Reporters convicted of “offenses” against the head of state, ministers, or public institutions now face three to 12 months in jail, down from six months to five years.

Meanwhile, aggrieved officials and citizens continued to settle personal scores with journalists. On July 25, three men kidnapped and roughed up Abdoulaye Ladji Guindo of the weekly Liberté for an article denouncing corruption in the sugar industry.

Guindo was abducted a few months after attending a seminar on the use of investigative journalism to combat corruption, which has evidently reached troubling proportions in Malian society. In March, a Bamako judge grilled Communications Minister Ascofaré Ouleymatou Tamboura, who is suspected of stealing money allocated for the expansion of the state telecommunications company, SONATEL.

Western donors, who have consistently praised Konaré, were concerned when the president announced plans for a referendum to grant himself total immunity from prosecution. Under popular pressure, Konar cancelled the referendum in late November. Opposition leaders, for their part, spent the year warning against ballot fraud during next year’s vote.

May 22

Sidiki Konaté, ORTM

Konaté, head of the Office of Radio and Television in Mali (ORTM), was convicted of criminal defamation by a court in the town of Segou, some 80 miles north of the capital, Bamako.

The Autonomous Union of the Magistracy filed charges against both ORTM and the mayor of Bamako, Ibrahima N’Diaye, after a March 26 television show in which the mayor accused Malian magistrates of being corrupt and inefficient.

Konaté was sentenced to a month in prison and a US$1,350 fine. The mayor received a 30-day jail sentence and a US$4,000 fine.

Malian press and human rights organizations condemned the decision, as did CPJ in a May 22 statement.

Shortly after Konaté was sentenced, the union withdrew its complaint and closed the case.

July 25

Alboulaye Ladji Guindo, Liberté

Guindo, publisher of the Bamako-based private weekly Liberté, was kidnapped by three men and held for several hours, during which time he was threatened and roughed up.

According to Guindo, the abduction came in reprisal for an editorial in that week’s issue of Liberté in which he denounced allegedly illegal schemes used by local businessmen to corner the sugar market. The article implicated Amadou Djigué, a prominent Bamako entrepreneur whose Djigué-SA company is one of Mali’s biggest sugar suppliers.

Guindo, who claimed that Djigué’s son was one of the kidnappers, was held for several hours at Djigué-SA headquarters, where the men bombarded him with angry questions, punctuated with death threats, about the editorial.

Guindo told Agence France-Presse that he had no doubt that Amadou Djigué masterminded the attack. He later filed a formal complaint accusing Djigué of kidnapping and torture, but no progress had been reported in the case as of December 31.

September 26

Joan Baxter, BBC
Said Penda, BBC

Baxter, a correspondent for the BBC English Radio and Television Service, and Penda, a correspondent for the BBC French Radio Service, were arrested and detained by Republican Guard officials in downtown Bamako.

The two journalists had gone to the center of Bamako’s market district to cover merchant protests against the erection of a new barrier around the U.S. embassy. U.S. officials ordered the construction of the barrier after the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C.

Merchants objected to the plan, saying it would force them to move and would greatly diminish their sales. They also complained that the United States offered them no compensation for having to relocate their businesses.

At around 1:00 p.m., when Baxter and Penda approached merchants at the scene, Republican Guard officials stopped the journalists and confiscated their equipment. Embassy officials protested the arrests, telling the officers that such action was not part of their instructions.

Nevertheless, officers detained Baxter and Penda in front of the embassy for three hours without charge before taking them to the central police station. Once there, authorities interrogated the journalists for an hour to determine whether they had authorization to report on the “tense” situation around the embassy.

After police recorded Baxter and Penda’s personal information, they returned the seized equipment and released them unconditionally.