By Amy Lane


The official flag of The Republic of Mali

I. Introduction

Mali, also referred to as The Republic of Mali, is a poverty-stricken and drought-prone country located in northwest Africa and landlocked by seven other countries. Freedom House classified Mali as “Partly Free”, with an aggregate score of 45 out of 100, a political rights score of 5 out of 7 (7 being the worst), and a civil liberties score of 4 out of 7, in 2016. It is ranked 122nd out of 180 countries by the 2016 World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders. These numbers reflect a decline in freedoms when compared to reports from previous years. In order to determine a possible cause for this regression, it is important to examine both the history of, and recent events in, Mali. Therein lies the basis for comparison with the United States, ranked 41 on the World Press Freedom Index, on matters of free speech and free press.

II. Historical Background

The region that is present-day Mali was at one time a part of the three great precolonial empires of the Sudan: Ghana, Mali, and Songhai. Timbuktu, once a bustling trade and learning center, is on the upper Niger River in Central Mali. It was an ideal location for caravans from North and South Africa to meet and exchange the wares from their various regions. Mali is the home of rich gold deposits in the west and southwest, so trade in the coveted metal, as well as slaves, ivory, and other products, thrived along trade routes until the 15th century. Originally controlled by Ghana, the trade routes through Northern Africa were assumed by Mali after Ghana’s fall in 1076 CE. When Mali weakened in the 15th century, Songhai took the helm until it was defeated by Moroccans in 1591 BC. This led to political chaos, and trade was disrupted. New trade routes were eventually established, but they were directed towards new European trading posts that were being established near the coast, foreshadowing what was to come.

Military invasions, Islamic jihad and then French colonialization would dominate the next few centuries in Mali. The Moroccans maintained their hold until Muslim clerks took power through jihad. These leaders were then usurped through a series of military endeavors by French troops from 1880 to 1899, when the French gained full control of the region that came to be known as French West Africa. In 1946, a territorial assembly was established and the first political parties formed. French West Africa became the Sudanese Republic in 1958, and was declared an autonomous state shortly thereafter. Senegal and the Sudanese Republic joined to form the Mali Federation in 1959, but this did not last, and a congress made up of dominant Malian political party members proclaimed the remaining independent country The Republic of Mali in 1960.

Mali was ruled by President Modibo Keita, a prominent political party member, from 1959 until 1968, when he was overthrown by military leaders due to his unpopular socialist viewpoints and policies. The leader of this coup was Lieutenant Moussa Traoré, who subsequently formed a 14-member Military Committee of National Liberation with his fellow officers. This faction ruled Mali from 1969 to 1979, when the dominant political party at that time, The Malian People’s Democratic Union, was put in control of the government, with Traoré serving as head of state after his election in 1979 and continuing after his reelection in 1985. Traoré granted civilians access to their government through regular elections at local and national levels, and also successfully quashed coup attempts. He was a highly criticized dictator, however, and would prove to be a violent threat to the citizens under his control, and to free speech rights. In 1991, the people demanded that he step down, and when he resisted he was overthrown and imprisoned.

The new government was led for a short time by Lt. Colonel Amadou Toumani Touré, whose goal was a return to civilian rule through democratic election. Alpha Konaré , a well-known Malian archaeologist and museum director, won the presidency through national democratic election in 1992. He held the position until 2002, when Touré was elected. The man who had handed the government back to the Malian people in 1992 held the office until 2007, after a term troubled by economic hardship and Taureg rebels in the north. These Berber-speaking pastoralists are members of political organizations and terrorists groups that span many countries in Northern Africa. Conflicts with the Taureg continued until 2013, when a peace agreement was signed by both the government and the rebel group. Shortly thereafter, an election was held in which more than two dozen candidates ran for president, and a record number of voters turned out. With no clear majority vote, the top two winners of the election faced off in a second vote, and Boubacar Keita won 78 percent of the popular vote. The people of Mali appear hungry for democracy and liberty, but in a country fraught with military coups, economic hardships, and rebellious factions, the government’s priorities have often lied elsewhere.

III. Free Speech

Most historical free speech issues in Mali have been relatively recent. In January 1991, political groups in Mali began to organize and plan to protest the military regime of General Traoré, and his elitist economic maneuvers. Soon, the Alliance for Democracy in Mali (ADEMA), one of the opposition groups led by Alpha Oumar Konaré and Abdourahmane Baba Touré, was at the forefront of the opposition against Traoré. ADEMA demanded a multi-party system in Mali, and was joined by the National Committee for Democratic Initiative (CNID) and the Mali Pupils and Students Association (AEEM). AEEM organized students for protest against the government in late January. Several leaders of this group were arrested after demonstrations which included some rioting in late January, then released a few weeks later. Talks between the government and the opposition groups in February proved fruitless, and the situation in Mali reached the point of violence a month later. On March 22, 1991, tens of thousands of students and other protesters filled the streets of the country’s capitol, Bamako, in what many claim was a peaceful protest until stationed riot police opened fire on the crowd, killing at least 22 people. Chaos ensued, with civilians rioting and starting fires for a short time before dispersing under the military presence. Four days later, Lt. Colonel Amadou Toumani Touré launched the military coup that resulted in not only the arrest and imprisonment of Traoré, but also the deaths of 59 people.

The battle between the government and students continued even after the overthrow of  Traoré, and on Dec. 7, 1995, another AEEM demonstration turned violent at the hands of police when protesters formed a human barricade, blocking traffic. Police in riot gear began firing tear gas and beating any student that they could get their hands on, and then proceeded to a high school down the street where they arrested 15-20 students. The students were beaten mercilessly and publicly by officers as they were loaded into a van. President Touré spoke out against the overzealousness of police officers in the incident, but they faced no consequences. After this, the political climate in Mali cooled off for a period, until recently.

On Aug. 17, 2016, the Malian media reported that citizens were unable to access social media sites Facebook and Twitter. The blackout came after a clash between the police and supporters of a radio announcer who was jailed over statements made on air, which will be discussed at greater length later. The incident was believed to have been instigated by misinformation posted on Facebook. A journalist in Mali reported that graphic images of the clash were posted online. A few hours later, the blackout began. The government denied responsibility, blaming a possible technical issue. It may never be known whether or not the government did impose the blackout to impede citizens’ rights to free expression, but it could certainly be considered a possibility.

IV. Free Press

Following the overthrow of General Traoré in 1991, Mali had a very permissive media environment. Mali’s local radio stations, numbering in the 300’s, reach 98 percent of the population. Only economic factors and illiteracy rates limit the print and distribution of private newspapers, as well as internet access. Private and foreign television is unrestricted to those who can afford it. Mali has criminal laws against libel, but it is seldom used to punish journalists. The most well-known libel case was in 2007, when a group of journalists reported on the story of an essay assignment in a high school class that involved the alleged infidelity of a fictional president. The journalists and the teacher were jailed, but later released.

In August of 2016 a popular radio presenter known as Ras Bath was arrested for criticizing a popular preacher on his radio show. When his supporters showed up at court, a misunderstanding about court dates led to the clash between police and supporters that was previously mentioned with regard to the social media blackout of the same month. This led to the death of one man, and injuries to several other people. Mr. Bath was later released due to the influence of other religious leaders who spoke out on his behalf. This incident is partly responsible for the decline in ratings by World Press Freedom Index, but the government seems focused on preventing further incidents regarding the press and police, as they have very recently instituted a training program for security forces to improve the safety of journalists. The workshop was organized by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization in Bamako, in partnership with several other UN offices. The three-day training took place from March 28-30, 2017, at the Peacekeeping School in the capital city. The officers learned how to manage their relations with the media in a way that ensures freedom of expression and access to information by the people while improving safety conditions for journalists. Journalists in attendance were informed of their rights and safety procedures, as well.

V. Critical Comparison

When comparing Mali and the United States with regard to free speech and free press issues, there are many social issues to consider, and several notable United States Supreme Court cases that are reminiscent of Malian incidents. The most notable free speech controversy in Mali occurred under a militaristic regime that was overthrown in the quest for liberty. Malian military groups have played a substantial role in the quest for democracy there. It is highly unlikely that a military coup in the United States could overthrow the government due to free speech violations, even in the form of firing on peaceful protestors. The U.S. military answers to the government, and there are no factions powerful enough to defeat what is arguably the greatest military that the world has ever known. Many police departments in the United States are fully equipped with military-grade equipment and weaponry, however, which can create very tense and hostile relations when not appropriate for the situation.

No incidents of flag-burning have been reported in Mali, as in Texas v. Johnson. The protests were symbolic speech, as was the flag-burning, yet Johnson was not fired upon under the orders of his government, nor beaten by police. U.S. police officers often face charges for using excessive force, unlike the Mali officers in the 1995 incident, but many U.S. citizens feel that justice is rarely served, as evidenced by the many protests on the matter over the past few decades. Historic symbolic free speech cases in the U.S. have been much less violent and deadly than in Mali. Tinker v. Des Moines involved the wearing of black arm bands by students in protest of the Vietnam War. It is highly unlikely that such act would even be an issue in Mali, since the notable student demonstrations were preceded by student strikes and sit-ins that were largely ignored by the government. Benjamin Gitlow was convicted of criminal anarchy for advocating the overthrow of government in the U.S. In Gitlow v. People of the State of New York, the Supreme Court upheld that conviction, claiming “language of direct incitement” though no anarchy ever occurred. This is very different from Mali, where actual organization and overthrow of the government has occurred. No convictions resulted from the overthrow, though dozens of people died.

Perhaps the most striking difference between the two countries is the socio-economic environment in the United States that allows for a court system with the means to try cases like Morse v. Frederick or Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, both of which involved the free speech of students. These type of free speech cases could seem frivolous and outlandish in a largely illiterate country plagued by drought, poverty, and rebel and terrorist groups, if they were even possible within the education and court system of Mali. Cases of intentional infliction of emotional distress, like Snyder v. Phelps and Hustler v. Falwell, would be unlikely to ever reach a high court in Mali. While libel is illegal, suing someone for causing you to be upset is not. That fact aside, the signs at the center of the Snyder case which spoke of God, and the religious aspect of the sexually explicit ad that was published by Flynt Publications, could cause other controversy in a largely Muslim country.

No social media blackout has ever been reported in the United States, and it is unlikely that this would occur, given the precedent set by First Amendment cases and the power of the press in this country to hold the government accountable. It has not been proven that the Malian government did impose the blackout, and it is possible that there were technical issues in a country where infrastructure is weak. The world may never know the truth, and thus far this was an isolated incident.

The current press freedom in Mali is comparable with the United States, with laws against libel, and the power to pressure the government for transparency. The police forces of the United States do not undergo training specifically for press interaction, which is a new and promising development in Mali. The case of the teacher and journalists who were imprisoned for libel, though based on a fictitious person, is somewhat reminiscent of the history of Hustler v. Falwell though, as is the Ras Bath case. Larry Flynt of Hustler Magazine, however, did not ultimately serve jail time or even pay a fine for his ridiculous and false statements about Jerry Falwell. New York Times v. Sullivan was a United States Supreme Court case in which minor lies were told about a public figure by the news publication. The court determined that public figures were open to criticism and commentary, even when false, and protected by the First Amendment. Though Ras Bath was released, he would not even have been arrested in the United States for his commentary about the preacher.

VI. Conclusion

The United States and Mali are two very different countries – economically, politically, and socially. What they do have in common is a population that yearns for democracy and freedom. What Mali lacks in funds and education, it makes up for in spirit in the form of an unrelenting battle for freedom, even in the face of a violent regime. The United States, while placing great importance on its First and Fourteenth Amendment protections, often finds itself devoting valuable time and resources to cases that would not be an issue in Mali. U.S. courts are sometimes forced to bestow legitimacy upon people whose primary goal seems to be attention or infamy. In a country of means, this is how precedent is sometimes set. The comforts provided by literacy and general economic stability often determine the priority afforded to issues of free speech and a free press. They also allow United States citizens to live with the assurance that they will be protected by an expansive court system which upholds their rights to say almost anything they like, no matter the substance or legitimacy. The Malian government seems willing to continue to endeavor for the same protections for its people, despite what it lacks in monetary and intellectual assets, as evidenced by the recent training sessions in media relations. Hopefully, this will point Mali in a direction of more personal freedoms, and less violence, for its people.



Affoah, Vivian. “Mali: Social Media Blackout.” Media Foundation For West Africa. N.p., 22 Aug. 2016. Web. 29 Mar. 2017.

Affoah, Vivian. “Mali: One Dead, Several Others Injured for Protesting Arrest of Radio Presenter.” Media Foundation For West Africa. N.p., 18 Aug. 2016. Web. 29 Mar. 2017.

Baker, Kathleen M., and Andrew Clark. “Mali.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., 13 Jan. 2015. Web. 23 Feb. 2017.

Bleck, Jaimie. “Countries at the Crossroads 2011-Mali … – Freedom House.” Freedom House, n.d. Web. 29 Mar. 2017.

Foltz, William J. From French West Africa to the Mali Federation. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1965. Print.

Imperato, Pascal James. Mali: a Search for Direction. Boulder, Colo. London: Westview Avebury, 1989. Print.

“Mali.” Human Rights Watch. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Mar. 2017.

“Mali.” Freedom House. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Feb. 2017.

“Training of Pedagogues of Malian Security Forces on Freedom of Expression and the Safety of Journalists.” UNESCO. United Nations, 28 Mar. 2017. Web. 29 Mar. 2017.

Traub, James. The Freedom Agenda: Why America Must Spread Democracy (Just Not the Way George Bush Did). New York, NY: Farrar Straus Giroux, 2008, pp. 191-195, Print.

Smith, Zeric Kay. “’From Demons to Democrats’: Mali’s Student Movement 1991-1996.” Review of African Political Economy, vol. 24, no. 72, 1997, pp. 249–263, Print.


This essay was last updated on April 30, 2017.

%d bloggers like this: