by Idrissa Fane. Idrissa Fane is Fulbright Scholar from Mali, he is a second year Master student in Communication and Development.
Tell me how free your media is and I will tell you how flourishing your democracy is. If this assertion still holds true, the Republic of Mali, known as Mali, can brag about its democracy established in 1992 following a civil unrest that led to a coup d’état and the restoration of a civilian government. Sandwiched between countries where democracy seems far removed, Mali is nonetheless cited as the one of the most democratized and liberalized states in Sub-Saharan Africa. Over the last 18 years, the democratic process has continued to be sustained. The country has experienced relatively free and fair elections in the midst of increased political pluralism and decentralization.
Concurrently, there has been media liberalization during the same period. State controlled media have gone public. Private print and broadcast media have tremendously expanded in both number and in access. Mali has more than 200 radio stations, over 42 newspapers and periodicals, and two televisions stations. Foreign media outlets have increased, although they are limited to the capital Bamako and are only accessed through local media, and foreign satellite and cable. Access to the Internet is open. A broad range of views and opinions, including those critical of the government, are permitted. Ownership is varied, ranging from professionals with an economic agenda to opponents with a political agenda to obscure people who pull the string in the dark for various reasons.
This proliferation of private media has contributed to political freedom, human rights, and freedom of speech. It has also contributed to better information, increased knowledge and participation. To a larger extent, the media have taken an active role in the consolidation of the democracy by educating citizens about their civil and political rights and responsibilities and by informing, advocating, mobilizing, and socializing them into democratic norms and ideals. The media have become the voice of the voiceless and have provided citizens with a podium to express their views and participate in the democratic process. From domestic to foreign issues, the media have been monitoring the government and holding it accountable to its people, by exposing its misdeeds and denouncing policies contrary to public interest. As late as December of 2009, the media required transparency over the use of the funds obtained from the privatization of Mali’s telecommunication company (SOTELMA). Soon after the earthquake in Haiti, the media asked the government to cast a spotlight on the fate of Malians working in peacekeeping in Haiti.
Since 1992, the professional working environment of the typical Malian journalist has been improved. New infrastructures were built for the promotion of journalists and measures have been taken to improve their living conditions. Mali’s constitution protects the right to free speech and press. Despite a few instances when journalists were detained for libel, in general the government observes the laws and rarely invokes slander. A recent piece of legislation guarantees reduced penalties to convicted journalists.
State owned media have also made tremendous effort to gain citizens’ trust by allowing coverage of opposition parties’ political activities. The government has set up a Committee of Equal Access to guarantee access to State controlled to all political parties during election campaigns. Parties’ airtime is determined by the number of their candidates. Parties with more candidates have longer airtime. Such measure aims at strengthening democracy by establishing political equality and fairness among the parties.
Mali’s unique media environment could be attributed to two major factors. Firstly, the historic role played by the media in the establishment of democracy. While a combination of international pressure, student demonstrations, and trade union strikes, contributed in paving the way for the Malian democracy, the print media played the most significant role. Long before student protests and unions strikes, Les Echos and l’Aurore, the only newspapers at that time, defied the military regime. Both newspapers have been at the forefront of the revolution and through their courage they have inspired the civil society. Secondly, the presence of media associations and advocacy groups which play the role of police within the media in order to prevent abuse to and from the media.
However, the Malian media faces real challenges: The first is inadequate qualification of journalists. Few Malian journalists have received the training necessary to carry out their duties professionally. Most came to the profession unprepared and unaware of basic ethical issues. The daily ethical problems in Mali include: bias, partisanship, lack of objectivity, misinformation and corruption. But while the lack of adequate training may be a contributing factor, journalists’ poor living conditions contribute significantly to ethical issues. In fact, Most of them work for a very little or no salary at all, especially in the broadcast media. Therefore, they have become an easy prey for corruption and partisanship.
Since 2002, another challenge surfaced: the rapprochement between the President and opposition parties following the appointment of their members as government Ministers. This has quieted opposition parties and reduced political debates. While this might bring stability to the country, this single party mood could weaken the mechanisms of checks and balances, especially in the absence of strong civil society and legislative and judicial institutions. It could weaken the media which have become de facto the sole defender of democracy.
While Mali is still a fledgling democracy because of institutional and structural weaknesses, weak political parties, and the absence of a professional media with international standards, hope remains for the strengthening of democracy. Hope remains since tolerance, justice, compromise, trust, sharing, and mutual respect that have characterized Malians for centuries are norms compatible with democratic citizenship. Hope remains with visionary and humble leaders like Mali’s former President, Alpha Omar Konare and current Head of State, Amadou Toumani Toure, who have preferred to make history instead of clinging to power by changing the constitution. The leadership example that they have set must become the rule, not the exception.