French army tight-lipped on Mali intervention

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More than seven weeks into its intervention to root out Islamist rebels in Mali, the French army keeps a tight lid on details of the operation -- a policy some call a public relations fumble.

Instead of using the chance to portray itself in a good light, the military is keeping the public in the dark and rubbing the media up the wrong way, say observers and industry commentators.

“The army is missing out on a chance to put itself forward at a time when it is doing something impressive all on its own, without our American allies,” said Michel Goya of the IRSEM defense research institute, who described the information blackout as “counter-productive”.

“The defense ministry and the army have always had a defensive take on communication, of which they only see those aspects that are negative, disruptive and need to be restricted,” he added.

The French military has kept the area where the main fighting is taking place, around the city of Kidal in Mali’s far north, virtually off-limits. Three television crews were allowed into Kidal early last month but were confined to the airport.

Press watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) last month criticized France for an “excessive” media lockout.

“We’ve never seen such unanimous frustration among reporters on the ground,” said Ambroise Pierre, head of the RSF Africa desk, condemning a “serious attack on the freedom of the media”.

Journalists say the French army’s communications strategy has changed markedly since 1994, when it carried out Operation Turquoise amid the Rwandan genocide.

Then, the army provided a daily briefing in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo for international correspondents and took them along on regular helicopter missions.

But the operation became a public relations nightmare for the French military, which was later accused of supporting the genocidal regime and allowing murderers to escape along with refugees.

In the 2000s, the French military drew criticism for its communications in Afghanistan, where it blacklisted journalists for publishing articles deemed negative.

In Mali, press officers are not allowed to answer journalists’ questions about “events” or ongoing operations.

“The army’s communication is completely patronizing,” said Jean-Louis Le Touzet, special correspondent for the French daily Liberation.

“They offer us ‘activities’ as if we were hyperactive children who need to be kept occupied,” like being allowed to follow military logistics convoys, he said.

Denouncing a “total lack of transparency”, he said: “Journalists therefore have limited confidence in the army’s communication, whereas at the onset the feeling was very positive.”

French military spokesman Thierry Burkhard denied shutting out the press, saying that since France launched its Mali intervention on January 11, “we have welcomed 280 press crews onto the scene”, or “370 journalists”.

“They may not have seen everything that they wanted to, but we welcomed journalists into the units,” he said.

Some of the restrictions have seemed over the top: an AFP photographer was prevented from taking a picture of a pilot’s mascot, and another got into trouble for taking a picture of a soldier wearing a scarf with a skull printed on it.

Such measures are “counter-productive”, said defense expert Goya.

“The French army often complains about not being recognized enough,” he said, calling Mali a missed chance for good PR.

“The public knows nothing but the names of the dead and possibly of a general, but the soldiers remain anonymous.”