Mali to suspend French broadcasters France 24 and RFI

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PARIS/DAKAR March 17 (Reuters) – Mali’s ruling military junta will suspend broadcasts by French state-funded international news outlets RFI and France 24, accusing them of reporting what it called false allegations of army abuses, in an unprecedented clamp down on foreign media.

The allegations were made by the head of the United Nations rights commission Michelle Bachelet and rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW), then reported by RFI and France 24 this week, the junta said in a statement published on Thursday.

Human Rights Watch said on Tuesday that Malian soldiers were responsible for killing at least 71 civilians since early December. 

Radio broadcaster RFI this week also ran a series of testimonies from people who said they had been tortured by Malian soldiers and suspected Russian mercenaries operating alongside them.

Relations between Mali and former colonial master France soured in recent months, particularly since the junta fell back on election promises and started working with private Russian fighters in a long-running battle against jihadist militants.

The Mali junta has staged two coups since August 2020 and delayed plans to hold elections in February, prompting sanctions from the 15-member Economic Community of West African States. 

It said in the statement that what it called media hype “was a premeditated strategy aimed at destabilizing the political transition, demoralize the Malian people and discredit the Malian army”.

It also compared RFI and TV channel France24’s reporting to the infamous “Mille Collines” radio in Rwanda, blamed for broadcasting propaganda that helped incite the 1994 genocide.

Local media will be banned from diffusing RFI and France24 content once the suspension is in place, it added.

The two outlets were still on air in Mali on Thursday morning. The junta did not give details of the procedure, or say when broadcasts would be suspended.

France Medias Monde, the state-owned holding company that counts France 24 and RFI among its subsidiaries, said in a statement that it regretted the move and rejected Mali’s “unfounded accusations”.

FRENCH TROOP WITHDRAWAL

Growing tensions pushed France to announce the withdrawal in February of hundreds of troops deployed across the desert country since 2013, raising security concerns for the insurgent-hit Sahel. 

Last month, Malian authorities expelled a French reporter for weekly magazine Jeune Afrique.

Mali’s woes date back to when jihadists hijacked a northern separatist uprising in 2012. Armed groups linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State have since gained ground despite the presence of thousands of international troops and UN peacekeepers.

Attacks have spilled into neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger, killing thousands and forcing more than two million to flee their homes.

The New-York based HRW has accused both militants and Malian soldiers of summarily executing civilians.

It said army abuses had risen over the years, and linked them to the charred remains of 35 bodies found in the central Segou region this month, some with holes in the back of their heads.

Mali’s government told HRW that it was investigating a number of abuses outlined in the report but denied involvement in the Segou execution

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