PORTRAIT : “We didn’t do anything wrong, we just held our microphones and turned on our cameras”

Death threats, assaults and harassment have become the daily lot of journalists around the world.

Malian journalists have been experiencing this painful reality for several years now. Malick Konaté, a journalist for AFP and founder of the MAKcom communication agency, who was forced to leave Mali and find refuge in Dakar in September, then in France in January 2023. In an interview for the Maison des Journalistes, he looks back on his story.

Malick Konaté has more than a decade of experience under his belt, after being selected in 2012 to join the Jeunes Francophones du Monde web radio as a host.

A rising star in Bamako, he took part in a training course with RFI in Paris the same year. 

Thanks to the private Malian TV channel Wôklôni-TV, the young man trained with the journalism school of Lille, present in Bamako. 

It was in 2015 that he embarked on a career as a photojournalist, building on an already extensive track record. He quickly rose to the position of editor-in-chief for a private television channel, where he remained until 2018, when he became director of the Africom-TV channel.

Une photo de Magatte Gaye.

He then began his first productions for AFP, and now collaborates with BFMTV, TF1 and Al-Jazeera.

Ambitious, Malick also runs his own communication agency called MAKcom since 2018 and a TV channel has been broadcasting his programs for five years now.

The thirty-year-old has always covered sensitive subjects in Mali. Since the coup d’état in May 2020, he has been subjected to major smear campaigns and harassment on social networks.

2022, the beginning of the end 

In 2022, a dozen people were employed there: they endured the waves of harassment but held the line, before the fateful date of October 31, 2022, when the campaigns took on “out-of-this-world proportions”. 

In France, BFMTV broadcasted a documentary entitled “Wagner, les mercenaires de Poutine” (Wagner, Putin’s mercenaries), provoking ire on Malian social networks. Despite his efforts, the journalist emeritus had no choice but to downsize. 

According to many anonymous online voices calling for his head, Malick shot the footage of the mass grave at Gossi, a massacre that the French army attributes to Wagner. 

“Malick Konaté never shot this sequence. The images of the Gossi mass grave were shot by a French army drone, which transmitted them to the editorial offices”, explains BFM in an article.

The channel also points out that Malick “never participated in the writing of the report”, to no avail: the journalist is now the victim of hundreds of online threats and calls to “slaughter the enemy”.

Accused of trying to spy on and “sell” Mali to the West, Malick has since been the victim of grueling online harassment campaigns. “On social networks, it’s usually fake profiles that attack me and threaten me with death, but I don’t know who’s behind it all”, he explains over the phone in a measured, serious tone typical of radio journalists. Unperturbed, Malick doesn’t beat around the bush and answers each of our questions directly.

Une photo de Massihoud Barry.

Journalists, pawns in geopolitical conflicts

“I proved that they weren’t my images because I wasn’t in a position to shoot them myself. But people think we’re lying, me and the French media. They were looking for an alibi to attack France, but not head-on, which is why they attacked me”, he explains in a neutral voice. “We can’t touch France, so we’re going to shoot Malick”.

It was a dark period for the journalist, then hit hard by depression and isolated by everyone. 

“I was attacked at my office by two hooded people, and nothing was done despite my complaint. Another time, audio messages circulated on Facebook and WhatsApp, where my identity was revealed and there were calls to shoot me”. 

Although the authorities have the stalker’s personal details, the investigation is stalling.

“I was also receiving a lot of anonymous calls telling me I was going to be killed”, he also clarifies. As a result of all these security breaches, Malick left the country on September 1, 2022.

“I suspected the Malian authorities knew and approved of what was happening around me. I felt lost on the spot”. A journalist abandoned by his own country, whose constitution nevertheless guarantees freedom of the press.

“My complaints were going nowhere, until I contacted the group for the maintenance in order to secure my office”, where he received threatening letters and unfriendly visits. 

“The General Staff sent four agents to my office on July 1, 2022. When they arrived, they asked me for 60,000 CFA francs [around 90 euros], then 50,000 per agent per month for protection, which I accepted. But the agents only stayed for three hours before returning to the camp, without explaining why. They never came back, leaving him even more in the lurch. Malick realized he had to leave the country, and organized his departure. 

But even outside the country, the journalist continued to face pressure. On November 2, 2022, a judicial investigation brigade in Bamako called him and informed him that his presence was required for a meeting with the brigade’s commander, without any further details.

Cautious, Malick replies that he is not in Mali, but will drop by the office when he returns to Bamako.

“The brigadier called me back a little later to find out when I’d be back, I didn’t reply with any precision. That evening, our conversation was leaked during our lives on social networks by cyberactivists.”

“It said that I had fled justice and the country, that the head of the brigade was trying to arrest me. The same day, they sent soldiers dressed in civilian clothes to my house to arrest me. Who else but the brigade could have passed on the content of our exchange? They were in direct contact with the cyber activists.”

The people in favor of the media and journalists 

With over 120,000 followers on Facebook and 145,000 on Twitter, Malick loses neither hope nor faith in the Malian people’s solidarity with their press. 

“I regularly receive calls and voicemails of support, I’m sometimes recognized on the street in Paris where people salute my work. I also see a lot of Facebook posts defending me, and press organizations like the Press Association support me”.

This popular enthusiasm fuels his ambitions, making him “even more eager to inform. It’s a risky business, but it’s worth it. All the people interviewed for this report were informed and in agreement, even the well-known speakers in Mali. We didn’t do anything wrong, we just held out our microphones and turned on our cameras”.

For Malick, his detractors “are supporters of the transition”, known but few in number. “These people think we have to preach to the same tune as them, and would like us all to support the transition”. But journalists “are not supporters” of any political camp. 

“Our job is to report the facts and give the public the information it needs”, asserts Malick over the phone. 

“They denigrate us for everything, they haven’t understood and don’t know what journalism really is. We’re seen as enemies of the country, paid by the West to bring Mali down. Maybe they’re being paid to support the transition. After all, a thief always thinks that everyone steals like him”, concludes the journalist with one of his famous maxims.

But what to do now? There’s no stopping Malick, who is continuing his investigations from France. One day, however, he intends to “return to Bamako if the situation stabilizes and the State ensures my protection”.

He assures us that he will continue his work as a reporter until the end. “We are neither friends nor enemies of anyone, we are not communicators. We’re here to report the facts and inform public opinion. There can be no democracy without the press; one cannot live without the other. My fellow citizens and the Malian government need to realize this.”

By Maud Baheng Daizey. Translation by Andrea Petitjean.