The Media Today

Mali banned two French broadcasters. What does that have to do with Russia’s war in Ukraine?

March 25, 2022
Protesters holds a banner reading "Thank you Wagner", the name of the Russian private security firm present in Mali, during a demonstration organised by the pan-Africanst platform Yerewolo to celebrate France's announcement to withdraw French troops from Mali, in Bamako, on February 19, 2022. - The French president announced on Febraury 16 the withdrawal of troops from Mali after a breakdown in relations with the nation's ruling military junta. France first intervened in Mali in 2013 to combat a jihadist insurgency that emerged one year prior. The French pull-out after nearly a decade is also set to see the smaller European Takuba group of special forces, created in 2020, leave Mali. (Photo by FLORENT VERGNES / AFP) (Photo by FLORENT VERGNES/AFP via Getty Images)

Yesterday, Sonia Devillers, a media reporter at the public radio station France Inter, asked Marie-Christine Saragosse, the head of the government-owned entity that oversees France’s public international broadcasters, about threats to their work in two very different countries. In Russia, Saragosse said, the TV channel France 24 has been cut off by Russian distributors in the majority of homes that it reached prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—part of a broader tit-for-tat that has also seen European countries ban Russian state broadcasters. (France 24 still reaches 1.7 million Russian homes, Saragosse said, and remains available online.) In Mali, meanwhile, the ruling military junta recently blocked both France 24 and the French radio station RFI, and banned local outlets from picking up their reporting. Saragosse spared a thought, in particular, for “our very courageous Malian colleagues, who are now fighting to do their jobs without our support, which often helped them to speak out on taboo subjects.”

At first glance, these developments would seem to have little in common beyond the shared context of declining press freedom globally. Look closer, though, and patterns emerge. The Malian junta suspended France 24 and RFI after they reported on alleged abuses, including summary executions, on the part not only of Malian soldiers but also, apparently, fighters from Wagner, a shadowy Russian mercenary organization. The Russian government has insisted that Wagner is a private entity that operates independently, but Western officials and researchers have long claimed that the group works to further the Kremlin’s geopolitical aims from behind a veil of plausible deniability. (Russia has distanced itself from Russian firms’ “commercial activities” in Mali; confusingly, Mali has denied that Wagner is present in the country but has touted an official partnership with Russian military “instructors.”) Yesterday, Devillers put it to Saragosse that, given their simultaneity, there might be a link between the reprisals against French international broadcasters in Russia and Mali. When Saragosse replied that Mali is “not a Russian province,” Devillers pushed back, noting that Africa as a whole is a strategic Russian priority right now—economically, and also in terms of fighting its “information war,” particularly with swaths of Europe and North America condemning it over Ukraine.

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Devillers has not been alone in suggesting a link here: also yesterday, Le Monde observed, in an editorial, that Mali’s “censorship of French programming marks a new step forward for Russian influence in West Africa,” depriving the Malian people of “reliable information” and “leaving Moscow free to fill the vacant media space.” And, more broadly, the Malian junta has grown closer to Russia of late following a sharp diplomatic rupture with France, its onetime colonizer. Last month, France and Western partners announced the withdrawal of troops that have been stationed in Mali since 2013 in the name of fighting a regional jihadist insurgency, with Emmanuel Macron, the French president, partly blaming Wagner—and its “predatory intentions,” as he put it—for the decision. Last week, Macron condemned the blocking of France 24 and RFI as being at odds with the values of the Malian people. The Malian junta, in turn, accused the broadcasters of trying to “destabilize” it, and even compared their output to that of a radio station that infamously helped incite the Rwandan genocide in the nineties.

As Mali’s relationship with France and its partners has deteriorated, so has the broader situation for foreign journalists there. Last month, the junta suspended the accreditation of reporters arriving in the country (ostensibly because they were busy digitizing the process) and invoked this rationale to expel Benjamin Roger, a French journalist for the magazine Jeune Afrique, even though he had an entry visa. Reporters Without Borders noted that, since the arrival of Wagner forces, Mali’s media climate has been likened to that of the Central African Republic, where French journalists have been targeted and local publications blocked—possibly, some publishers have suggested, at the direction of Russian officials—since Wagner fighters arrived there in 2018. (As in Mali, the CAR has denied that Wagner operates in the country, though Russia has been open about sending in “instructors.”) The same year, three Russian journalists arrived in the CAR to film a documentary about Wagner for a media outlet owned by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a prominent Putin critic, and were murdered while driving on a remote road. Officials blamed robbers, but nothing of value was taken from their car, and CNN subsequently linked the attack to a local police officer with “shadowy Russian connections.”

If these specific incidents remain murky, the Putin regime has certainly been involved in a wider information war in Africa in recent years, as Devillers noted. A recent report by the South African Institute of International Affairs, a think tank, found that Russian state media outlets have advanced anti-Western narratives across the continent, tapping into existing anti-colonial sentiment, broadcasting in various languages, and leveraging content partnerships with local news sites; between November 2017 and January 2018, the Facebook following of RT’s French affiliate exploded, apparently driven by users in various African countries. In the CAR, Russia has been linked to influence operations online and is also reported to have financed more traditional media, including at least one movie, while in Mali and the surrounding region, junk news, much of it supporting Russian intervention, has spread on social media. In 2020, Facebook shut down three networks of fake accounts—two of them linked to Russia, the other to individuals linked to the French military—that it said were seeking to influence regional opinion.

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Russia’s ambitions in Africa are complex and not totally clear, and the same goes for the effectiveness and precise scope of its information tactics there; anti-colonial sentiment, of course, is deeply rooted in many places, and the think-tank report concludes that “the popularity of Russian-sponsored content may rely more on its appropriation by African actors.” As I wrote two weeks ago in the context of the war in Ukraine, it’s best to avoid sweeping assumptions about the intent and impact of Russia’s propaganda output in any geographical setting. A key imperative, here, is to look beyond the ways in which the conversation about Russia’s information war gets refracted through mainstream Western media. A week ago, Carl Miller, of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at the British think tank Demos, shared a graphic showing how Russia has recently targeted its information operation at audiences in Africa and Asia. “When we say Kyiv is winning the information war,” Miller warned, “far too often we only mean information spaces we inhabit.”

We should also avoid sweeping assumptions about the views of a given population—but it’s clear that the French military presence in Mali had lost public support; one poll conducted in Bamako, the capital, prior to the withdrawal found that more than 85 percent of respondents were dissatisfied with the French operation while 70 percent were favorable to the arrival of Wagner. Recently, Danielle Paquette, the West Africa bureau chief at the Washington Post, reported from Bamako, where protesters have waved Russian flags and photos of Putin, and one vendor said that locals see Wagner as coming in “to clean up the mess.” The vendor was selling merchandise branded with the Russian word for “Mali,” and doing a roaring trade.

Below, more on Mali, Wagner, French media, and Russia’s war in Ukraine:

  • Fact and fiction: OCS, a French TV network, will soon air Sentinelles, a fictional series about the French military operation in Mali. According to France Info, the French army advised the makers of the series and provided its actors with uniforms—a willingness to engage that, according to one researcher, has been unusual for the French defense authorities and seems to have been inspired by the US military. An official confirmed that the French army is keen to use fiction as a “tool” to combat a lack of public knowledge about military challenges, though Thibault Valetoux, the creator of the series, stressed that it is not intended to be propagandistic, even if it isn’t “anti military” either.
  • More on Wagner: Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian oligarch who is believed to run Wagner (but has denied it), is suing Eliot Higgins—the founder of the open-source investigative website Bellingcat, which has investigated Wagner’s operations in Africa and Prigozhin’s ties to the Kremlin—in British court. (I wrote last week about Russian oligarchs using the British legal system to sue journalists for libel.) Meanwhile, the British government yesterday moved to sanction Wagner, claiming that Russia has tasked the group’s fighters with assassinating Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine. Officials did not provide evidence for this claim. Asked about it by the Wall Street Journal, a representative for Prigozhin called the questions “a severe psychosis of Western media.”
  • Ukrainian journalists, I: Speaking to Devillers on France Inter yesterday, Saragosse said that the entity overseeing French international public broadcasters is considering both adding a Ukrainian-language offer and leveraging its presence in neighboring Romania to offer “refuge” to journalists forced to flee Ukraine. “We could have a sort of newsroom-in-exile for Ukrainian public TV and radio,” Saragosse said.
  • Ukrainian journalists, II: The Post’s Paul Farhi examines the “anonymous and thankless”—and often dangerous—work of local “fixers” for international news organizations, one of whom, Oleksandra Kuvshynova, was killed while working for Fox News in Ukraine last week. “Fixers get called when foreign journalists know they’re in over their heads,” Farhi writes. They might have a background in journalism or be “well-connected locals in need of cash.”

Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday, Bob Woodward and Robert Costa reported, in a story published jointly by the Post and CBS News, that Ginni Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence, repeatedly pressed Mark Meadows, then the White House chief of staff, to help overturn the result of the 2020 election before Trump left office; in texts obtained by the House committee investigating the insurrection, Thomas invoked QAnon-adjacent conspiracy theories about the election, and urged Meadows to listen to right-wing pundits like Rush Limbaugh and Dan Bongino. The story instantly cut through in a news cycle that has been dominated by Ukraine. “Objectively speaking, Donald Trump’s loss in 2020 should not still be ‘news,’” CNN’s Brian Stelter noted. “But the Big Lie keeps getting bigger.”
  • Ted MacDonald, Allison Fisher, and Evlondo Cooper, of Media Matters for America, calculated how much airtime corporate broadcast TV networks in the US devoted to the climate crisis in 2021 and found that, while it was “a stand-out year” by past standards, the topic still only accounted for around 1 percent of their news programming. “A summer of global extreme weather, President Joe Biden’s climate agenda, and the COP26 climate conference” drove climate reporting across ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox Broadcasting, though beyond those big stories, the coverage was “uneven.” The study also found that the guests on climate segments were disproportionately white men.
  • Kai Kupferschmidt, of Science, spoke with Carl Bergstrom, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Washington who thinks that studying the spread of “bullshit” should be a top scientific priority. Bergstrom and other scientists have argued “that the study of how the information ecosystem influences human collective behavior needed to become a ‘crisis discipline,’ much like climate science, that could also suggest ways to tackle the issue,” Kupferschmidt writes. Research to this point, however, has not been easy, with scientists often unable to scrutinize the algorithms that shape the spread of information.
  • Kirsten Allen, a press secretary focused on covid at the Department of Health and Human Services, will be the press secretary for Vice President Kamala Harris. In other jobs news, David Wallace-Wells, of New York, is joining the Times, where he’ll write about science and technology for the magazine and opinion section. Davey Alba, who currently covers tech for the Times, is joining Bloomberg. And Heather Riley, a senior spokesperson at ABC News, is taking on a new role as an executive editorial producer.
  • For the MIT Technology Review, Sam Richards and Tate Ryan-Mosley ask why officers with the Minnesota State Patrol took photos of journalists covering a protest against police brutality last year and uploaded them into an app, called Intrepid Response, that allows for easy data-sharing between law enforcement agencies. Targeted journalists said that officers wouldn’t tell them why their data was being collected or where it would be stored.
  • For The Objective, Naomi Andu has the story of a mass exodus from the Texas Observer, where of the thirteen editorial staffers in situ in September, only four now remain. Former employees told Andu that the departures “can be traced to a series of board decisions,” including its handling of a complaint that Tristan Ahtone, the Observer’s first Native editor in chief, made about a prejudiced comment by a colleague.
  • Gawker’s Tarpley Hitt assesses the case of Andrew Nguyen, a writer for New York’s The Cut who was fired for appearing in a promotional video for Target after having been warned not to do so by HR. Nguyen had written about Target in the past, and so his transgression seemed to constitute “a clear conflict of interest,” Hitt writes. “But in the context of The Cut and fashion writing broadly, the standards are a bit less clear.”
  • On Being, the widely syndicated public radio show focused on the mysteries of human existence, will cease broadcasting as a weekly radio program and instead become a podcast with two seasons per year, while also expanding into workshops and live events. “We’re going to move on,” Krista Tippett, who hosts On Being and also owns the rights to the show, told the Times. “It’s almost existential, theological, right? Things die.”
  • And Stephen Wilhite, the computer programmer who invented the gif, has died of covid. He was seventy-four. In 2013, after winning a Webby Award for lifetime achievement, Wilhite told the Times that he was proud of his creation but annoyed that people kept pronouncing it with a hard g. “The Oxford English Dictionary accepts both pronunciations,” he said. “They are wrong. It is a soft ‘G,’ pronounced ‘jif.’ End of story.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.