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.


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.


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 – Tweeting in a war

Ibrahim Sysawane, @sysawane on Twitter, is a Malian student of 29 years old native from Kayes in Eastern Mali. He started to daily use Twitter after the coup in March 22th 2012 which deposed President Amadou Toumani Toure. Since the beginning of the war, he has been tweeting everyday about his daily life in Bamako and the war news.


What kind of Tweets do you send on a daily basis? Informative? Sharing? 

My use of twitter is primarily to share and inform the outside world about live news related to Mali especially about the war in the north. I also tell about stories of the armed groups such as the MNLA, Ansar Dine or AQIM, and discuss national policy.

Why do you prefer to use Twitter? 

Twitter for me is a place where freedom of speech is guaranteed, without censorship. It is the freedom of expression for the voiceless. During the insurrection of the Malian army last year, a friend told me via phone that things were degrading along the road to Kati. At that time I started to do a live on twitter about the military coup. Many people from the Malian diaspora asked me to go on Twitter and I discovered at that time the importance of this social network.

Do you find that bloggers and Tweeples are useful for providing news in this war?

In my opinion, it is very useful for spreading informationen in real time with speed and especially to inform directly about the war for those who don’t have access to the information. And I hope I can help in a way, by providing information, to also show what happens on the ground.

What do you think of the news about Abu Zeid’s death and the picture of him that appeared on Twitter before the global media?

The death of Abu Zeid was also confirmed by President Idriss Deby with a photo as a proof. It showed that one head of AQIM was actually killed in battle by the French and Chadian troops. But it was reliable news only when  another nearby site AQIM (Sahara Media) confirmed it.

How much can you trust this kind of information on Twitter compared with what you read in global media?

The war in northern Mali is a war going on “behind closed doors” or “without images”, but we are informed and we provide news through social networks like Twitter. I notice that when some media can not cover this war, Twitter succeeds where mainstream media have failed because it’s less controlled. Social networks like Twitter are the best place to inform and be informed.

An example of Ibrahim’s discussing on Twitter: information, sharing and debate are his daily tweets.


Interview by Lilia Blaise

Twitter accounts to follow for updates about Mali by RFI

Mali – “Libya could play an important role in the terrorist reorganization”

Tarik Hafid is an Algerian journalist for Le SoirdAlgérie an independent daily newspaper. He comments on the situation in Mali from Algeria. According to Mr Hafid, the next terrorist threat could come from Libya.

How are Algerian media currently covering the situation in Mali?

Tarik Hafid: The Algerian media has been closely following what’s been happening in Mali for several years. In the early 2000s, the Algerian press was the first to draw attention to the establishment of certain leaders of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC, which later became AQMI) in the area around Azawad. These forecast have unfortunately been confirmed. Algerian media are still very critical of the France’s military action in Mali. Many newspapers do not hesitate to use the word “neocolonialism”. One another thing is sure for the Algerian press, the current Malian government has not political control or military control.

Since the hostage crisis in In Amenas, what has been the situation in Algeria? 

TH: We must first recall that Algeria has been facing the phenomenon of terrorism for more than two decades. The hostage’ situation of In Amenas certainly resulted from the specific nature of the target, the status of the victims, the organization of the terrorist group and the reply of the Algerian army. So it is important not to consistently link the security situation in Algeria with what is happening in Mali. Terrorists have different strategies for each countries they are in. But they also have an overall strategy for this region in particular. It is thanks to the drugs produced in Morocco and ransom money which enables them to buy weapons in Libya to be effective in Mali, Algeria and Nigeria. But we must remain watchful, as Islamist terrorism is indeed able to spread.


Map of Aqmi activities in Sahel by l’Express.

Do you struggle to get information about what is happening in the field?

TH: For a journalist, working in a country like Mali requires huge financial and logistical resources. Since the beginning of the French military operation, most of the news is provided by embedded journalists. So for the Algerian media, most of the work is done remotely.

What do you think is next for the “Serval” operation and the stabilization of Mali? What will be the impact on Algeria?

TH: It’s difficult to comment on the future events in light of what’s happening right now. Regarding Mali, I think the security should stabilize on the security policy. But I do not think that France will leavethe country soon. In my opinion, Paris should be more involved in its  policy  to put an end to the conflict between the central government in Bamako and communities of Azawad. Moreover, it seems that France could reinforce its presence in Niger in order to closely monitor its interests. But I think that in the future, the real danger will come from Libya. After the defeat of northern Mali, AQIM  and Mujao will surely be moving to Libya. This country offers several advantages for terrorist groups: lack of security, tribalism, availability of weapons of all types and ease of recruitment for new members. The south of Libya is also on the axis of the drugs’ trade. In my opinion, the next basis of terrorist groups in the Sahel will be located in Libya.And Algeria will have to be all the more vigilant on its borders. Moreover, we must learn from previous events, as the terrorist group who attacked In Amenascrossed the Libyan border to Algeria.

Interview by Lilia Blaise

The beginning of the war in Mali has raised many questions about media coverage and ethics. In France, even if the main media criticized the army limits for the journalists, they did not escape the critics from foreign media. At this point of the conflict, the mainstream media in Africa and Middle East offers another point of view.


Photos Credits: Magharebia

Photos Credits: Flickr Magharebia

Covering a war is never easy especially when you have no choice but to respect the military limits. In order to avoid expected war coverage and to reach a largest audience, the TV channel Al Jazeera chose to interview the Malian publicopinion about what they think of the French intervention in their country. Rather than using vox pop, the media made an interactive map and asked two simple questions as in opinion polls: “Do you think France should have intervene in Mali? And why?” They gave a number so everyone could text a response or call. The journalists of Al Jazeera created a map organized with the main themes of the answers among which we have Gratitude, Security, Stability, Anti-terrorism and Necessity. The most interesting is the last one: Anti-intervention. The opponent voices to the French action have often been presented as coming from the Islamists or Jihadists. Last coverage of the conflict by French media was more based on “freeing” or “rescuing” the country. Stories are about militaries encountering relieved or traumatized citizens, each time French troops enter a city previously held by the Islamist militants.

Al jazeera's interactive map Mali speaks. (Screenshot of Al Jazeera website)

Al jazeera’s interactive map Mali speaks. (Screenshot of Al Jazeera website)

Even the Malian media embrace the arrival of France with enthusiasm. But there are always some dissident voices as the 4% presented by Al Jazeera map show: the majority of them don’t agree because of the risks of civilian victims. Others tackled with a tough point also made by other close countries to the Mali: the reminiscence of French neocolonialism in Africa, which is perceived as an infringement to the sovereignty, an intrusion into the land.

The same Al Jazeera channel for instance, after stating that 96% of the interviewed population was in favor of the French intervention, made a TV show about Mali’s war without images. In this show, the opinion is clear, the lack of images for a journalist stuck in Bamako can lead “further from the truth” but also to biased information dependent of the French authorities on the field.

Listening Post – Mali’s ‘war without images’.Source: Al jazeera

Some say Mali has been a “war without images”, and if that is because the French government want the story told their way then journalists have a problem. But the responsibility of reporters is more than just being in the right place at the right time. There is no such thing as observation without interpretation and words like ‘Islamist’, ‘atrocity’ and – especially – ‘terrorist’ are easy to say but not so easy to define. When journalists slip into the standard narratives there is plenty that does not fit in the picture.»

For other countries than France, the question of media coverage in Mali seems to raise a lot of issues. The International media organization Reporters Without Borders denounced in a statement released on January 16 the “media blackout” and spoke about a “war behind closed doors”.  The tuniso-american journalist Yasmine Ryan spoke also the absence of any press conference held in Gao by the French or the lack of information about children soldiers in the rebel troops.

French and Malian troops consolidate gains. Source: Al Jazeera

Guerrilla warfare is dirty, by its very nature. Just how irregular or dirty this war is, or whether it is a more conventional war, is difficult to judge with media kept so far from the conflict zone. »

But there is more to this critic than what we think. As in the interactive map, Yasmine Ryan also wrote about the controversial role of France:

Foreign intervention is controversial for many Malians, particularly in the form of an operation where its former colonial occupier is playing such a key role. For most of 2012, the Malian authorities had requested international support – funding, weapons and training – for its own forces instead of bringing in foreign military muscle. »

In the countries close to Mali, such as Tunisia and Algeria, criticism  have also been made. The newspapers were cautious and dubious about the aim of France at the beginning of the intervention. Algerian press editorials have underlined the loneliness of France in the intervention. Other African media fear a sinking of the conflict into civil war or guerillas. From across the hexagon, the media coverage of war in Mali mirrors and confronts the French media but they also give a complementary point of view and a balance. That is what we will try to do in this blog. We will give a voice to the African media and their point of views but also to the citizen journalists, bloggers and observers who can offer an insight into the backstage of Mali’s war. Of course we will also analyse the most dissident voices of this conflict, the Islamist militants war propaganda through Sahrawian media for instance.At last it’s important to underline that’s this criticism about French media is sometimes coming for not reliable sources such as propagandist PressTV, an iranian TV channel broadcasted in english.

Lilia Blaise

To know more about the conflict, here is the timeline made by the New York Times about the crisis in Mali.