Geneva, Switzerland – The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has criticized Mali’s decision to ban French media and called on its military leaders to reverse their decision.

“We are deeply dismayed by the decision of the Malian media regulator to permanently suspend Radio France International [RFI] and France24,” a spokeswoman for High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet said Friday.

“These suspensions are the latest in a series of actions restricting freedom of the press and freedom of expression in Mali, and come at a time when more, not less, scrutiny is needed.”

Mali’s military leaders first imposed the suspensions on March 16, accusing the two broadcasters of airing false allegations about reports of human rights abuses by the military.

On Wednesday, the High Authority for Communication announced that these temporary suspensions would be final.

Journalists’ associations have denounced an increase in attacks and smear campaigns against reporters over the past year, particularly against French media representatives. Foreign and local reporters covering Mali have denounced a worsening climate for media professionals in the country.

“We didn’t have this kind of review before,” said a freelancer contributing to French media, who asked not to be named for security reasons. “The situation has worsened since tensions between France and Mali began to rise. It is a political question.

“Generalized cooling effect”

On Friday, the Committee to Protect Journalists also called on the authorities to reverse their decision to ban RFI and France 24.

“Malian authorities’ decision to solidify these suspensions shows how determined they are to prevent people in their country from accessing information,” Angela Quintal, CPJ’s Africa Program Coordinator, said in a statement.

On February 6, French journalist Benjamin Roger, a reporter on assignment for Jeune Afrique, was arrested and deported within 24 hours of his arrival in Bamako, the Malian capital. Authorities said the journalist did not have press credentials. A week earlier, they had announced that it would become more difficult for media representatives to obtain press permits.

“So far, press accreditation has rarely been requested,” Reporters Without Borders said in a statement, “and its absence has not prevented journalists from working freely.”

On 8 April, Reporters Without Borders celebrated the first anniversary of the kidnapping of French journalist Olivier Dubois, correspondent for French publications Liberation, Le Point and Jeune Afrique. On March 14, the Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM), a coalition of armed groups linked to Al-Qaeda, released a video showing that he was still alive.

French aid worker Sophie Petronin was kidnapped in Gao in 2016 and released after four years. In 2013, Ghislaine Dupont and Claude Verlon, two RFI journalists, were abducted and killed by gunmen in the Malian town of Kidal as they were finishing an interview with a Tuareg separatist leader.

A member of the Malian special forces stands guard in Kati, Mali [File: Florent Vergnes/AFP]

Meanwhile, the UN has denounced how such a situation encourages journalists who are still inside the country to practice self-censorship.

“The current climate has an all-pervasive chilling effect on journalists and bloggers,” UN spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani told reporters on Friday.

“Our office continues to document serious allegations of violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law in many parts of the country, and we remain gravely concerned about measures to further shrink the already limited civic space. .

Tensions between Mali and France have increased since a military coup led by Colonel Assimi Goita on August 8, 2020, which overthrew elected President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, who was backed by France.

In June 2021, France, a former colonial power in the region, halted joint military operations with Malian forces pending guarantees of the return of civilians to positions of power.

French President Emmanuel Macron has announced that he will begin a withdrawal of troops, around 5,100 soldiers, stationed in the region since 2013 as part of his so-called Operation Barkhane covering five countries in the Sahel – Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.

In response to the military takeover in Mali, the regional bloc of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union suspended Mali from their organizations and threatened sanctions .

In January, Malian Prime Minister Choguel Kokalla Maiga accused France of fostering insecurity and division in the country and expelled its ambassador.

According to Reporters Without Borders, Mali is ranked 99th out of 180 countries in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index.