Mali – The story of an embedded Chadian journalist

Abdel-Nasser Mahamat Ali Garboa alias Abdelnasser Garboa is a Chadian journalist covering the war in Mali. He was the one who took the picture of the remains of Abu Zeid and and he shared it on Twitter . But for him, covering a war is not always easy especially when you are embedded with the army of your country.

So I would have liked to know a little more about you, your journalistic career, and how did you find yourself covering the war in Mali?

From the first day of my writings, I decided to take the name of Abdelnasser Garboa. I started journalism at the age of 19 years to the only daily newspaper in Chad, “Le Progrès” which belongs to one of my uncles, Mahamat Hissene. In 2000 I entered the University of Ngaoundere in Cameroon to study law. While I was in second year, the lure of journalism attract me towards writing the first Cameroonian private daily “Mutations”. Mutations had passed the daily periodicity and was searching correspondents in the north of the country was covered by very few private media. It was in March 2002. I then covered restructuring operations bases organs of the ruling party, the Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement (CPDM). In 2005, Chad was then faced with the rebel army who swore to have the skin of President Idriss Déby. Not wanting to settle for terse press the Government on the balance sheets of battles, unmet also small visits to battlefields after a confrontation. I ask the Minister of National Defence at the time, General Bichara Issa Djadallah, to incorporate me in a combat unit leaving for the East. He became my request and allow me to embark with General Daoud Abakar Abdelkerim Kareinkeïno alias, one of the most iconic warlords Chad. He was Director General of the Gendarmerie. This was my first experience of war coverage. I spent three months with them to skim the areas east of the country behind the elements of the United Front for Change and those of the Union of Resistance Forces. This experience gave me a better understanding. I first learned about the geography of this part of the country almost every bastion of rebellion. I got to know our soldiers and to appreciate them. I also learned to understand the issues, people and practices of this bloody conflict. My way ofdealing with this conflict of information has completely changed. My greatest gain is to know what it looks like when you talk about movement forces belligerence. It was a unique experience. Regarding the war in Mali, the first day of the announcement of the entry of our troops in action I thought that I should do something. I went to the Ministry of National Defense and then to the General Staff of the Armed Forces to cover how to deploy our units. I was the first to interview the commandant of forces and the one of the operations. During the creation of a pool of journalists to support our troops, I volunteered and then, the adventure began. For me, journalism is always synonymous with great coverage and extensive survey.

Twitter live coverage of the war of Abdelnasser Garboa in Mali

Twitter live coverage of the war of Abdelnasser Garboa in Mali

My other question relates to your use of Twitter and social networks in general: how do you use it?


I admit, that before the war in Mali, I used very little Twitter, I was much more on Facebook where I shared stuff with friends in France, Cameroon and the rest of the world. The need of Twitter came when I started covering Mali. I found there was a lack of information onthe operations of Chadian soldiers on the ground. While our forces Gao jumped on, no French press mentioned it. There was a total blackout maybe because it is the will of the French General Staff that put forward the French and Malian soldiers. But when I arrived in Gao on January 27, there was no Malian soldier in this city. It was sickening for Chadians. It was the same when we arrived in Menaka, and into Kidal. No communication as made on the operation of Chadian soldiers. So Chadian journalists decided to redress this imbalance. The problem is that the state media is not very credible in the eyes of many people. So I tried to give a different look. But I do admit that is a subjectiv point of view since I fully support the operation of Chadian soldiers and I will ensure that no information that would undermine the moral of the troops is released. In these kinds of operation must be very careful. I respect the facts, but the role of the army is crucial.

When you posted the picture of what is believed to be Abu Zeid’s dead body, did you know the impact it would have?


I knew that Abu Zeid was a wanted emir and that his picture would be an important shot. But the impact of its propagation was beyond my imagination. There was an unecessary controversy created by Le Drian about the reliability of it. Many of my fellow did not like the dismissive attitude of the French minister.

Screenshot of Paris Match  Magazine with the picture taken by Abdelnasser Garboa

Screenshot of Paris Match Magazine with the picture taken by Abdelnasser Garboa

But how did you know it was him?

Why would I not believe a soldier who descends from a mountaintop claiming to have killed Abu Zeid and showing a photo of his corpse? Does my support to these soldiers is worse than the French or American press for their soldiers in Afghanistan or Iraq? More, who dared to ask for a DNA test to the USA following the assassination of Bin Laden? It was not difficult to identify Abou Zeid. His dead corresponded to the pictures of him circulating on the net. I trust my senses more than anything else. And in the end, François Hollande gave me reason but after twenty days.

You said you offered more a subjective point of view, but until which point ? How do you remain neutral when you are “embedded” with the Chadian army representing your country?
To support an operation does not mean we should distort information. I try to just report the facts. I do not want to dig up dirt at ay price. I report what I see and what I hear, officially. It must be remembered that our confines are also shared by all our French colleagues when they cover the war of their soldiers. It’s very strict and controlled. Of course, we must not fall into war propaganda. But I think some stories deserve to be told later, at the end of the conflict, with more details.

What do you think of the war in Mali coverage in foreign media?

Foreign media are very far from the ground. France wanted a clean and mute war. They sendreporters to cover patrol missions and not real combat operation. We have an advantage as Chadian journalists to be able to cover Chadian soldiers conducting raids on the ground in direct contact. This is essential to publicize these conflicts. We have great images that we can’t all broadcast for obvious reasons.

NB: Today, there are still doubts about the killing of Abu Zeid even if he has been replaced by AQIM. According to the Long war journal, AQIM has neither denied nor confirmed Abu Zeid ‘s death.

Interview by Lilia Blaise

Mali – Nasser Weddady, the “information entrepreneur”

Nasser Weddady is a Mauritanian living in the United States. Currently outreach Director with the Islamic Congress, he is also an activist and a blogger. On his blog called Dekhnstan, he offers another view on what’s happening in Mali based on his knowledge of the area.

How did you start to blog about Mali?

First, it came from a personal interest in Mali as a neighboring country since I am a Mauritanian citizen and also as a member of the Mauritanian opposition. Like most Mauritanians, we are very conscious of the historical ties between the two countries. We have close boundaries and you have a lot of Mauritanians living in Mali and Malians who come to Mauritania, so whatever happens in Mali- particularly the Azawad region – has a deep impact on Mauritania. This is one of the misunderstandings from United States and France when they analyze the war in Mali.

Courtesy of Nasser Weddady

Courtesy of Nasser Weddady

What kind of misunderstanding?

It seems that they believe that General Aziz who is the current ruler of Mauritania has a strong power base allowing him to intervene militarily in Mali.. In reality his rule has no real political legitimacy. His only pillar of power is the army. Historically, the Mauritanian Army as an institution is not interested in fighting wars, but rather in preserving its privileges. Also, if there casualties as a consequence of a military intervention in Mali will have serious political consequences within the army itself. This is important because members of tribes from the south east regions bordering Mali are overrepresented in the military. There was a wave of popular discontent predating any Mauritanian military involvement there. The announcement of French intervention in Mali was not met by any enthusiasm in Mauritania either because the public is generally wary of having a war on its own borders.  So when General Aziz said on the March 4 that he was ready to intervene with the United Nations, he was trying to balance public opinion’s rejection of involving the country in a war with his own need to be a Western ally against terrorism in exchange of financial and political support.  Mauritanian society still vividly remembers the trauma of the Sahara War in the late 70s; a war of choice that ended up destabilizing the country and installing a military rule that continues till today.

weddady

So you think Mauritanian public opinion is still against the French intervention? 

I will speak from my point of view.  People are upset because the international community failed to act earlier. The French intervention itself is a proof of this failure. So my position is quite ambivalent. The French Intervention was necessary but had European nations ceased to pay ransom money for hostages, and took the jihadist threat seriously there wouldn’t have been an AQIM or MUJAO to begin with. This intervention stands as a symbol of the EU’s failure to conceive a coherent security Policy regarding the Maghreb and Sahel region. Europe has grown weak and unreliable to face international security threats.

Since you are based in the United States, how do you get information of what is happening on the ground?

I have a lot of contacts in Mauritania and also sources all over the Sahel region including Chad. But I tend to not rely a lot on big media because there is a severe media media blackout imposed by the French military which seriously undermines media  coverage. Despite the presence of good numbers of reporters on the ground, we have a hard time getting the facts.

What do you reproach the global media for?

I guess it’s more the common mistakes are due to the fact that they lack a deep knowledge of the country and the region. For instance, some media make the mistake of saying that what is happening in Mali is a direct consequence of the war in Libya.  That narrative is violently divorced from reality and has more to do with ideological spin that the facts. The problems of Northern Mali have been in the making for 50 years and did not start yesterday. The other theory that presents all Tuaregs as  bad guys and that northern Mali was somewhat hijacked by foreign islamists is also false. Northern Mali is inhabited different ethnic groups whose members joined Jihadi groups thus the situation is far more complex than the soundbites we are fed in the media.

weddady2

But I don’t blame the journalists on the ground, it’s more a problem in the editing room. People who assign journalists and decide what is and what isn’t a media story lack  a background of knowledge about the country allowing them to make informed decisions about their coverage. Furthermore the quest for higher ratings comes at the expense of quality journalism. To cover the war in Mali effectively, one has to have a solid ethnographic and geopolitical understanding of the region and its dynamics . Unfortunately, what we call the « news cycle » does not allow time and space for in-depth journalism anymore.

What do you think of a media such as Saharamedia?

Its coverage is of Mali’s event is vastly superior to mainstream corporate media because the website’s team has long track record of networking and outreaching in the area. That is why they became the primary media outlet breaking all the major stories about the war in Mali despite their very modest resources. Experiences like Saharamedia provide a completely different kind of news coverage altogether, unlike the highly western-centric coverage during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars which was mainly defined by Western media organizations. Here it’s local news operating on the ground that is defining the coverage. All of the staffers are natives of the region and know Mali’s populations very well and understand what is going on day-to-day.

You have popularity on social networks; you have almost 30,000 followers on Twitter. How do you see yourself in this context? As an opinion leader? A fact checker ?

As a citizen journalist, I will publish every information I deem vital to understanding the events and root causes of the conflict. But my job is also to verify information that is circulating. I also find myself every now and then challenging big media organizations’ coverage because I have other sources beyond their reach, feeding me on daily basis.  However, I feel that my primary role due to my limited time is also to be an observer and to flag any mistakes I come across in media related to the issue. If I read a good story, I will promote it, if I see a bad story; I will criticize it and explain why. I guess, in a way, I am trying to act as an opinion leader but I see myself more as an information entrepreneur.

Lilia Blaise

For further reading of Nasser Weddady’s articles: How Europe bankrolls Terror on The New York Times

Mali – Boukary Daou is almost free

Today was an important journey for the Malian press. Boukary Daou, the director of Le Républicain newspaper was released from jail until the resuming of his trial on the 16th of April. For Malian journalists it is a small victory.

Kassim Traore annouced it early in the afternoon. His colleague is finally free. After having been imprisoned for twenty four days, Boukary Daou joined his family of five children and his happy colleagues. The judge accepted his application for bail on Tuesday. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, he shared his cell with 50 other inmates. It’s only temporary, but it’s a victory for some Malian journalists who feared that freedom of press has completely disappeared in Bamako. The director of Le Républicain was arrested for the publication of an open letter adressed to the army. His crisis committee is also “optimistic” about the “justice” according to Mahamane Hamèye Cissé, one of the members of the committee which supported Boukary Daou from the beginning.

Boukary Daou in the middle after his release, betwwen his two colleagues, Samby Touré and Kassim Taoré. Courtesy of Kassim Traoré

Boukary Daou in the middle after his release, betwwen his two colleagues, Samby Touré and Kassim Taoré. Courtesy of Kassim Traoré

The support came also from the director of the Africcan editor forum, Chériff Sy who held a press conference on the 27th of March. He said he was very confident that Boukary Daou would be soon relased. And he spoke to the Ministry of Communication and the Ministry of justice about the case. He also played the role of a mediator between both parties and try to convince the crisis committee to stop the boycott of National institutions. Boukary Daou’s case is not yet closed.

mali

The Malian media are waiting to see what will be the final judgement mid-April. The journalist was also released under conditions. He committed himself to not publish again the letter. But for now he is celebrating and he will meet with other journalists at the House of press tomorrow for a general assembly.

Lilia Blaise