Mali will suspend broadcasts by French state-funded international news outlets RFI and France 24 in an unprecedented clampdown on foreign media over what the ruling military junta said were false allegations of army abuses.
Comments by the head of the United Nations rights commission Michelle Bachelet and rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW) accusing the military of violations which were reported by RFI and France 24 in recent days, the junta said in a statement on Thursday.
Earlier this week, Human Rights Watch said Malian soldiers were responsible for killing at least 71 civilians since December.
Radio broadcaster RFI also ran a series of testimonies from people who said they had been tortured by Malian soldiers and suspected Russian mercenaries operating alongside them.
Relations between Mali and former colonial master France have soured in recent months since the junta fell back on election promises.
The Malian junta has staged two coups since August 2020 and reneged on plans to hold elections in February, prompting sanctions from West Africa’s regional bloc and the European Union.
Russia’s presence in the desert nation has exacerbated tensions.
Western officials have said hundreds of contractors from Russian private military group Wagner are operating in Mali. Wagner has denied it has a presence there. The junta says only Russia military trainers are in the country.
It said in the statement that what it called media hype “was a premeditated strategy aimed at destabilising the political transition, demoralizing the Malian people and discrediting the Malian army”.
It also compared RFI and TV channel France 24’s reporting to the infamous “Mille Collines” radio in Rwanda, blamed for broadcasting propaganda that helped incite the 1994 genocide.
Local media will be banned from diffusing RFI and France 24 content once the suspension is in place, it added, without saying when that would be. The two outlets were still on air in Mali on Thursday.
France’s foreign ministry called the decision to suspend the broadcasters a grave attack on media freedom and said the allegations of army abuses must not be ignored.
Corinne Dufka, Associate Director in the Africa Division at HRW, called the criticism of rights actors and move against RFI and France 24 “deeply troubling.”
France Medias Monde, the state-owned holding company that counts France 24 and RFI among its subsidiaries, said it rejected Mali’s “unfounded accusations”.
French President Emmanuel Macron condemned the decision.
“I condemn with the greatest firmness this decision, which seems to me totally at odds with the values espoused by the people of Mali since its independence,” he said at a news conference in Paris.
Growing tensions pushed France to announce the withdrawal in February of soldiers deployed across the country since 2013.
Also in February, Malian authorities expelled a French reporter for weekly magazine Jeune Afrique.
Mali’s woes date back to when jihadists hijacked a northern separatist uprising in 2012. Armed groups linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State have since gained ground despite the presence of thousands of international troops and UN peacekeepers.
Attacks spilled into neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger, killing thousands and forcing more than two million to flee.
New-York based HRW has accused both militants and Malian soldiers of summarily executing civilians.
It said army abuses had risen over the years, and linked the military to 35 charred bodies found in the central Segou region this month, some with holes in the back of their heads.
Mali’s government told HRW that it was investigating a number of abuses outlined in the recent report but denied involvement in the Segou execution.