War in Mali: the necessity of cautious news

Some say they are dead, other don’t. In less than a week, Chadian newspapers announced the death of one of the key members from AQIM terrorist group and also the death of Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the leader of the attack in In Amenas. But in France, the news has still not been confirmed. And AQIM has just stated that Abu Zeid is dead but not Belmokhtar. Since the beginning of the war in Mali, how much can we trust the media?

Screenshot of a twit pic on twitter by the caricaturist Damien Glez

Screenshot of a twit pic on twitter by the caricaturist Damien Glez

It was allover Twitter, the news was spreading on the web faster than any other and some media took the information for granted. Two leaders of terrorist groups were killed by Chadian troops according to the news of Friday march 2nd. It has been four days and the French Minister of Defense has still not confirmed it. According to the AFP news agency, the chief of staff of general army forces Edouard Guillaud said that Abu Zeid is “likely” dead, but his corpse has not been found yet. And AQIM has just confirmed on Monday that Abu Zeid was killed but not Belmokhtar which shows once more that there is more to the story than what we think.



From Chad, the general commanding Chadian troops in northern Mali said Sunday that he was not able to confirm the death of Mokhtar Belmokhtar. Even so, the Chadian government announced it on Chad’s national state television one day before. Every global media took the news, quoting different sources, a “report”or the Chadian government. Somehow the news has not been verified and today, French media remain cautious to release anything.

The press release by the Chadian army about the killing of the two terrorist on the National Chadian TV:

Why is it so difficult to verify such crucial information? On one side, we have the French media and the French news agency based in Paris and who are quite dependent of the army press releases. On the other side, Chadian troops are fighting in the mountains which are difficult to access even for the journalists including those who are embedded.

The American media are the most distant from the conflict and must write news gathered from external sources rather than on direct field observations out of Mali. The best informed recent article was the the WSJ and was written by correspondents based in Ghana and Paris. The only information is therefore coming from the army or anonymous sources according to Sahara media. The website said these sources are “generally well-informed”, but did not give any more details.

It was Chadian general Zakaria Ngobongue who confirmed the killing of Belmokhtar on Saturday after Chadian President Idriss Déby announced the killing of Abdelhamid Abu Zeid on Friday.  According to the Algerian website El Khabar, the Chadian army said in a statement  that ”Chadian troops in Mali completely destroyed the basic rule of jihadists in the Adrar Mountains in a series of Aafogas, specifically in Omatetaa Valley”. Official news and army news seem to be not so reliable, the following days showed. As an official from the Chadian ministry said to the Wall Street Journal, the killed ones were identified by their followers and buried immediately because  “It’s not in our culture to go around with bodies, they are not trophies.” Hassan Syllan, the Chadian Communication Minister, said to the newspaper. Still, according to Hassan Sylla, the fact that Mali and France have not confirmed shows that the research for a body seems to be in jeopardy .

Coverages by the BBC and Al Jazeera of Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s death.

Why did the global media rush to make this announcement? For l’Expression, an Algerian newspaper, it is because some of the news agencies in the United States said they had “very reliable” sources about this without really quoting anyone. Reuters News agencybased its information on a Chad press release but specified that Washington had not confirmed the news. But it also shows that somehow in a world where news is supposed to be more reachable than ever, some is simply impossible to verify. What was the right thing to do? While the Media had to speak about it, they should have stayed in the conditional tone rather than preenting it as a beaking news. Being cautious is therefore the only deontological solution rather than giving unclear and incomplete information. This bring us back to a similar same issue previously raised on this blog, which is the difficulty for journalists to cover a war where information devices d contents are extremely controlled. For instance, why does the French army publish its own videos on its Facebook pages? It was in order to communicate but not to give an impartial information. It may be also the case that the Chadian army is more eager to show they are winning in the war rather than to speak of several Chadian soldiers dead on the field. 26 of them died in battles on the 22th of February on the frontline. Among the other African countries, Chad has sent the biggest contingent in Mali and it confirmed during the Cedeao summit that it was impatient for the fight to come to an end.

Lilia Blaise

On the same subject: The war in Mali by Al Jazeera: Malian speak project and the invisible war


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