Gao - 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 defence research
institute, who described the information blackout as
"The defence 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
criticised 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 neighbouring
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.
Lack of transparency
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
patronising," 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
"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
defence expert Goya.
"The French army often complains about not being
recognised 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."