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Covering conflict: Mali's war, unseen

Malians cheer while France's President Francois Hollande speaks at Independence Plaza in Bamako, 2 February 2013
Malians cheer while France's President Francois Hollande speaks at Independence Plaza in Bamako, 2 February 2013

REUTERS/Joe Penney

By Thomas R. Lansner - Guest Blogger

This post originally appeared on The Vision Machine's website.
To view the original, click here.

Menacingly shrouded Al-Qaeda fighters… Paratroops descending on the 'fabled desert city of Timbuktu'… Jubilant throngs of kids, grinning… People waving or even wearing the French 'tricolore'… Women again adorned in brightly-colored traditional dress feting French soldiers… The French president joyfully mobbed… Staring from our screens, grim-faced amputee survivors of Islamist (in)justice… Mali “in flames”… And, yes, a few dead people….

To see the full selection of photos described by Thomas Lansner, click here.

These “snapshots” of Mali's war—embodied in their representative images—define what most of the world has learned of the ongoing conflict in the West African state. Most of the photos available, as the French daily newspaper Liberation observes, “have the feeling of having been produced by the school of fine arts of war….” [“avec le sentiment donné d'avoir été produites par l'école des beaux-arts de la guerre….”]

Serval-ing the dominant narrative

These images very comfortably fit and exceedingly well serve the dominant narrative of the origins and expected outcome of France's military intervention in its former colony: that “Operation Serval,” was launched on 11 January 2013 to repel aggression by “terrorist” forces, and will quickly conclude with victory over brutal fundamentalists, aided by warmly welcomed and enlightened foreigners.

This narrative seems at least in part quite plausible, and reflects an elite and mainstream media consensus. It is an easy sell to audiences accustomed to conflict reporting that offers dramatic and simplified (and sometimes simplistic) military-oriented coverage about places and issues about which they know little. Especially in France, whose people are being asked to expend treasure and risk lives, the plain morality tale of demonized (here hard-line Islamist) enemies and grateful allies is useful in retaining public support for the mission. Yet the dominant narrative far from fully paints a situation that is far more complex, and challenges that might prove more costly, than early official assurances.

This is not new in conflict coverage. Governments and militaries (and non-state actors) always, and most urgently during conflicts, seek to control information and shape public perceptions to their advantage. What is striking is that France is deploying precisely the opposite of recent U.S. and U.K. military/media relations strategy. Rather than embedding many reporters with front-line units to build journalists' rapport with soldiers (and, conveniently, monitor their access), France has banned nearly all media from the combat zones.

Despite many correspondents' repeated and sometimes risky efforts to reach the front lines, there are virtually no first-hand journalistic accounts of the fighting in Mali. Video of fierce firefights with all their attendant noise and smoke and confusion appeared in late February only after recently expelled Islamist guerillas re-infiltrated the city of Gao, which was then thought to be far behind the front lines. Even casual media consumers are now accustomed to and expect such images. More than a decade of compelling combat footage provided by embedded

French media organizations have publicized the restrictions on their reporting (as well as sometimes criticizing their colleagues' offerings), complaining vigorously, as have press freedom groups. “The French authorities, supported by their Malian counterparts, have achieved their 'zero image of the war front' media objective for Operation Serval by strictly controlling access to information,” the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders stated in mid-February.

“Bewildering”—Mali in no context

While the depiction of French troops being welcomed by most Malians to drive out Islamists appears accurate, the much larger story of why war has come to Mali, and how its conflicts might be addressed, is absent. One can find more serious and sometimes contentious analysis, for example here, here, here and here. But the dominant narrative offers little understanding of how war enveloped a nation long held (and arguably misrepresented) as a peaceful democratic beacon amidst many countries torn by conflict and ruled by despots. The lack of context in most reports is unsurprising, especially in television news clips and other short-form journalism. Unfettered access to the front lines might even cut context and skew perceptions by trumpeting the latest most frenetic “bang-bang” video. For those who remain confused by events, The Atlantic Online offered a visual aid headlined: “A Map of the Bewildering Mali Conflict.” As a map it is pretty, but leaves neophyte Mali-watchers no more apprised of the causes or consequences of the conflict. And still bewildered, indeed, as the map's caption itself closes by asking, “Just what are the French getting themselves into?”

Many even brief articles mention that France is Mali's former colonial master. But the fact that Mali is a country of multiple ethnicities that has for decades seen rebellion simmer and flare among the marginalized nomadic desert Touareg peoples is rarely described. Nor is the fact that modern Mali is a colonial creation; its frontiers were declared by 19th Century imperial mapmakers, and it borders seven similarly-conjured countries, all now experiencing various degrees of political and ethnic unrest, and to which the fear of Islamist “contagion” is very real.

The notion that France's intervention might be motivated by reasons beyond the desire to protect Malians and the wider world from violent Islamist extremism is rarely voiced. It is mostly left to small leftist groups to offer an alternative view and point out (and this, at least, quite accurately) that France has enduring powerful economic interests in West and Central Africa. The uranium deposits crucial to France's nuclear industry found in Mali's eastern neighbor Niger certainly merit mention, especially since that country has also experienced ethnic-based Touareg rebellions. Another dissenting voice is Iran's official PressTV, which headlined: “France war in Mali: Neo-imperialist grab dressed up in “war on terror” rhetoric”. Even if many of its reports predictably unveil vast Western Capitalist/Neo-Imperialist/Crusader Conspiracies behind every sand dune, they do offer interesting contrast to headlines like this from the BBC: “In pictures: Why Malians now love France”.

Don't show us the flames of war

As mentioned earlier, the vast preponderance of images offered recently from Mali are actually “post-conflict” or from outside the conflict zones. When video of people reportedly executed by the Malian Army as suspected rebels or possible sympathizers was aired on French television, France's official Supreme Audiovisual Council warned against showing such images “to ensure compliance with the principle of human dignity.” [“veiller au respect du principe de dignité humaine.”] French media seem prepared to defy the broadcast watchdog; a senior news director asked, “I would like to know exactly if this is a new doctrine that we say 'attention, don't show the victims.'” [”Je veux savoir exactement si c'est une nouvelle doctrine qui nous dit 'attention ne montrez pas les victims.'"]. An interesting question is whether the politically very sensitive (and counter official narrative) nature of alleged revenge killings by Malian Government forces prompted the French broadcasting council to object. The “offending” images are discussed at minute 13 of this Al-Jazeera program.

A few other images have caused controversy, including this of a French soldier in a bandana with a skull design over his face. This photo alone should evoke a panoply of commentary. The mask the solider donned against dust raised by a helicopter is based on “Ghost”, a popular character in the top-selling video wargame series, Call of Duty. How we — and young men especially — are conditioned to consider conflict by pervasive wargaming is increasingly debated. And the cross-cultural context is also rich: as part of the Call of Duty character's complicated backstory, Ghost's death mask seems to reference Mexico's zestfully macabre “Dia de Los Muertos” festival.

The photo was jarring and profoundly “counter-narrative”; a French colonel scrambled to proclaim French forces “are not messengers of death” in Mali. And photo-evidence of alleged revenge by Malian troops made grimmer viewing, even absent much context. But as Liberation observed, most of the proffered images are achingly beautiful, as this compilation attests. After touring with Malians at toil and at play (“mostly in the south,” the introduction explains, “where photographers are able to work.”), we reach the conflict in only the last dozen or so shots of the 41-photo set. And nearly all the photos with soldiers are fairly static, and might as well show training exercises. Only the closing shot — after proceeding through a click-through warning of its “graphic content” — brings any real inkling of the terrible costs of war. This is a powerful image of death, made vividly and mundanely human by what appears to be the victim's sandals, lying undisturbed by his feet.

Notable in this set are two images that present people framed by smoke and fire. Neither, as the captions frankly admit, have anything to do with the conflict; a marketplace accident (photo 21) and the annual burning off of sugar cane fields (photo 14). The BBC also used the fiery sugar cane fields in a story, but with the caption, “It will be some time before life in northern Mali returns to normal”. This is surely true. But the photo depicts an unremarkable scene (including an archetypical donkey, and not even in the north), exotic to most viewers, but unconnected to the conflict.

No matter. Photo editors everywhere —and their audiences!—are drawn as moths to flames. And if fighters keep correspondents from the actual fires of war, some other blaze will serve and sell. The French Army would shrug, contentedly enough. To paraphrase words ascribed to the turn-of-the 20th-Century American press baron William Randolph Hearst, “Give me the (flaming) pictures, I'll call it the war.”

Thomas R Lansner is a visiting professor at the Paris School of International Affairs of Sciences-Po Paris, and taught on international media and communications at Columbia University from 1994-2011. From 1980-1990, he covered numerous conflicts, mostly in Africa and Asia, for the London Observer, the Guardian, and other media outlets. Lansner writes regularly on media/human rights/conflict issues, and offers media/presentation training for human rights and social justice advocates.

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