Media advocacy groups say the offensive by French and Malian troops against Islamist militants in northern Mali has taken place largely out of view, as journalists’ access has been severely limited. Little by little local and international reporters are getting into the north, but some say access remains difficult.
Many journalists covering the situation in Mali - especially foreign reporters - have spent a good bit of time trying to get beyond Sévaré, the central town that was the dividing line between the government-controlled south and rebel-held north.
Reporters who were in Mali when fighting broke out in January said the military blocked journalists from entering two of the first towns to see combat - Konna and Diabaly - for several days. When journalists finally arrived the towns were full of soldiers and residents appeared afraid to recount what they saw.
The press advocacy group Reporters Without Borders has expressed concern about what it calls "a grave obstruction," urging the Malian and French authorities to allow reporters to move about freely.
Malian Defense Ministry spokesperson Lieutenant-Colonel Diarran Koné said aside from barring civilians from combat zones for their own safety, the authorities are not restricting journalists. He commented on the “very, very, very many reporters” who have flooded into Mali in recent weeks, saying all of those requesting accreditation are receiving it. But some journalists are finding that in many cases that piece of paper is not enough.
Journalist Katarina Höije, who spoke with VOA by phone from Mopti in central Mali, said even with the required authorization papers from the Information Ministry, many journalists are being blocked from moving north.
"You get through most checkpoints with this but as soon as you get to a major town or try to leave a town north of Sévaré there’s problems," Höije said. "They say you have to have special accreditation from the ministry of defense… It enables you to move around but still you’re in Sévaré, you’re very, very far from the front and anything that’s actually happening."
She said that on Wednesday she and some other reporters who made it to Douentza, northeast of Sévaré, were ordered by Malian soldiers to turn back. She said often the military authorities tell journalists it is for their own protection.
Indeed safety is an issue. European or North American journalists are at risk for kidnapping. And it appears that some of the roads are mined. Four Malian soldiers were killed when their vehicle hit a mine outside the northern city of Gao on Thursday.
But Reporters Without Borders
said in a January 17 statement: “In war time, it is up to journalists and their news organizations, not the military, to determine the risk they are prepared to take in order to gather information.”
For concerns over possible mines, and to avoid being turned back by Malian soldiers at roadblocks, some journalists are resorting to paying as much as 2,000 euro for private charter flights to the north.
One Malian journalist, who spoke with VOA while on the road back to the capital Bamako from Gao, said he has seen a number of journalists, particularly foreign reporters, blocked at Sévaré. But he said by now a number of foreign journalists have made it to the north; he saw several in Gao.
One western journalist said the French military has taken journalists up in planes or convoys but space is limited. She said the access restrictions are frustrating but that there are legitimate security concerns.
Freelance journalist Marc-André Boisvert has been to Mali several times in recent months, including one trip three weeks ago just after the fighting began. He said that even several months back, during the occupation of the north, the Malian authorities were blocking journalists at Sévaré.
Journalist Höije said the world is getting a piecemeal picture of what is happening in northern Mali.
"The reporting is very limited. We would see a completely different picture if more journalists were let up there," she said.
Reporters Without Borders says it is critical that journalists be allowed to see for themselves what is happening on the ground, especially amid reports of war crimes by Malian soldiers.
Human rights groups are calling for investigations into alleged rights violations by both the Malian army and Islamic militants.