Published on April 9th, 2013 | by EJC0
Reporting In Fragility: Kees Broere On Mali
He has been based in Africa since 1998. He currently lives in Nairobi, Kenya.
The EJC conducted an interview with him on the conflict in Mali and his work as a correspondent in situations of fragility.
Broere has been to Mali on several occasions during his long career as an Africa correspondent. Most recently, he spent time in Mali in December of 2012 and again in January 2013. Although Broere and his cameraman acquired their accreditations, it proved very difficult for them to continue their journey from the capital Bamako into the north of the country. While the fighting was going on in Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu, it was impossible for many journalists to reach those cities. “The roads were blocked by checkpoints and we weren’t allowed to go through. Those villages have remained unreachable for us,” explains Broere.
The checkpoints were staffed by soldiers of the Mali government forces, and according to Broere, it was clear that they had been given instructions not to let journalists pass. While it was impossible for him to move further north – even a detour led to checkpoints- Broere says that sometimes French journalists were allowed through. Eventually, Broere reached a small village that had recently been regained by Malian and French government troops, where he decided to stay since there was no hope of going further north. During the nine days that Broere and his colleague spent in Mali, they were only able to visit that place. As a result, the duo have not witnessed the ‘real conflict’. It is a shame, he says, “because obviously it had been our aim to document the actions of the soldiers. But we were deliberately kept away from any fighting.” In the village, the effects of the conflict were visible, according to Broere. The damage did not seem too bad, nor did the physical harassment that had been endured by the villagers. The rebels had occupied the village for some two weeks and people were relieved to see them go.
“Some of these systems of democracy are like a house of cards.”
A month before, in December 2012, Broere visited Bamako, the capital of Mali. He outlines the political unrest that was clearly felt during those previous visits: the coup that took place in the spring in 2012 shocked society. “You could say that it even surprised the generals who committed the coup. They could just walk on through and take over the presidential palace.” One has to imagine the events that took place – the military coup that followed a Tuareg rebellion in the North, the region where the situation subsequently worsened as also Islamist organisations partook in that conflict. “The Malinese society was violently shaken by these events. I could sense it in Bamako – people were scared.” Consequently, says Broere, the French intervention was a relief to the inhabitants of the capital. “They understood the significance of that intervention. The rebels had been very close.”
With his years of experience in Africa, Broere has gained an insight into the fragility of many African states. The systems of democracy that are being installed in these states, he says, are like a ‘house of cards’. The system in Mali was previously considered to be quite sound. New elections were scheduled for April 2012. Mali was the model as it was a good example of democracy being set up on the African continent. “But what has recently happened has made people realise that the democratic system was not stable, that it was very fragile, and that it could easily be broken down. It is a source of great disquiet in society,” Broere points out.
While he is not unfamiliar with armed conflicts, Broere admits that he is not a specialised journalist in war reporting: he is a general Africa correspondent, and covering conflict turns out to be part of the job. “The real value of my job is that I have an insight in the overall state of affairs on the continent. I try to contextualise the developments and situations. Mali’s political system is not the only fragile one, there are more states whose systems are as stable as a house of cards.”
According to Broere, working in these fragile states does not necessarily constrain his journalistic practice. One might assume that the contested legitimacy of state institutions (of fragile states) makes it difficult to check facts or trust information that is provided by government agencies, but, as Broere says, this complication is not unique to fragile countries. He preaches transparency: “It is quite easy to notify the audience of your difficulties to get facts checked. You say: ‘It seems to be the case that…’ This is part of the nuances that I think should be in my stories.”
The same counts for talking to interviewees. While the principle of a fair hearing is a standard for journalism, it can be difficult to speak to everybody or even reach them. “Ideally, if you’ve spoken to a government official, you would like to talk with someone from a rebel group, too, for instance.” It is important to understand, says Broere, that the difficulties of fact-checking and fair hearings are not unique to journalists working in situations of fragility. “As a journalist, it may always be difficult to completely follow your journalistic principles. You always have to be critical and a healthy dose of suspicion is crucial to your work.”
As a general correspondent, Broere always keeps an eye on the international media and their coverage of events in Africa. In January, he says that he surely kept track of the few French correspondents who were allowed into the north. “They were allowed where I was not. That means that their stories might also shed a new light on the situation and our understanding of it. They provide news, new facts and images of the conflict. If they bring back such information, I will also use that as part of my coverage.”
“I want there to be nuances in my coverage. If you cannot check your information properly, you let the audience know and you explain to them why you can’t be sure.”
When it comes to the French military presence in Mali, Broere is skeptical about the resolve it might bring. The solution to the conflict in Mali, he says, have little to do with the actions of the French military – while the intervention has provided a short-term end to the conflict (or at least the advance of the religious fundamentalists), the real solution will be found in a political process from within the country. “The real solution will come through the political process, a very meticulous process. Mali has barely started to look at this solution.”
In fact, new elections for Mali are already scheduled for July 2013. Broere deems it unlikely that these elections will actually take place as planned. “There are practical difficulties – how and where will the people from North (those who stayed and whose cities might be damaged, and those who have fled and might or might not return) vote for these elections? But mostly there are very serious political problems. Who will be eligible? What political system must the Malinese go for? All these things, and also the process of resolution and reconciliation, are so complex, a probably long but certainly tough process. Mali is not even nearly there yet.”
Photo: Nicolas Raymond