The advent of mass media in Mali dates back to colonial times, when French settlers used the press as a propaganda tool to spread messages supporting their domination. In the period between independence and the military coup (1960-1968), there were several attempts to create publications. After the coup, outlets either ended up closing or fell under the control of the army. With the 1991 multi-party democratic elections and the liberalisation of the media market in 1992, the landscape was radically transformed with new publications and the creation of private radios across the country. During this period, media clearly identified with different political parties. This new dynamic encouraged the creation of new media laws and of a code of ethics. In 2002 private televisions appeared, initially without regulation, until the creation of the Haute Autorité de la Communication (High Communication Authority - HAC). As of 2019, there are about ten stations authorised to broadcast in the country.
Mali is ranked 108th (out of 180 countries) in the 2020 World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders (RSF). According to the Commission Nationale des Droits de l'Homme (National Human Rights Commission - CNDH) and international human rights organisations, civil and political rights are generally respected. The media environment is also considered one of the most liberal in the region. This earned the country the reputation of being a landmark for press freedom and information in West Africa. Yet, since the events of 2012 that plunged the country into a general crisis affecting security, politics, the economy, etc, the Malian press, as a whole, has experienced dark times, especially in its northern and central regions where insecurity persists and some correspondents faced threats of kidnapping. Also in the rest of the country, particularly in Bamako, journalists have been threatened and abused and have even disappeared. This situation has affected the Malian media landscape, in particular by increasing both the interest of the population in news and the financial resources these outlets generate. As a result, media entrepreneurs and consumers have increased in all layers of society and socio-professional sectors.
Apart from the state-owned newspaper Essor and the Office de Radiodiffusion Télévision du Mali (Mali Broadcasting and Television Board - ORTM), other outlets belong to either political or religious leaders, individually or collectively. Media intervene in the political and religious spheres, in particular to promote specific political and religious opinions. Certain radio stations broadcast programmes that give listeners the opportunity to express ideas about conflictual or judicial situations. For instance, Studio Tamani has a programme called Grand Dialogue debating sensitive local issues with representatives of different sides defending their positions. There is also a programme in Radio Kledu which hosts civil society, political, government and religious personalities to comment on the news and answer questions.
The 2012 crisis and the ensuing economic instability are making media more politically influenced and more divided than ever. Before the conflict, self-censorship and political influence coexisted with laws that were favorable to media. Some constraints were imposed, such as the abuse of the national budget for state advertising, or the modification of taxes imposed on certain media outlets. The armed groups follow all the print and broadcast information. They don’t actively use print media as a channel of communication but often send vocal messages to some radios to claim the appellative of jihadist versus the use of words such as “bandits” or “terrorists.”
Beyond the political influence on media, other factors affect the quality of information such as the low qualification of journalists, generally low wages and the absence of security in employment and collective agreements. Furthermore, there is a lack of trained professionals among journalists, producers or animators; most of the workforce has learned the job on the field after their university training, or even lack academic formation. The financial precariousness of the media sector is due to the absence of both advertising and subscription revenues. This means that media cannot pay regular salaries. This situation influences the production and editorial line of the various outlets, which are obliged to develop content according to the orientation of anyone who offers them the necessary financial means. Self-censorship is also very strong in Malian media for social and cultural reasons, not to mention the problems of job security and physical integrity. Moreover, political actors exploit the precariousness of media outlets to their own advantage.
The whole sector is evolving precariously, even if the advent of democracy and of information and communication technologies (ICTs) has revolutionised the audiovisual media. Malian media are experiencing difficulties that revolve around lack of professionalism and financial precariousness, which threatens their independence. They survive thanks to the intervention of the State, which grants yearly subsidies. The HAC is the control entity, monitoring and regulating media outlets. This involvement of the state in organising the media sector is often welcomed by those who find the issuing of licenses impartial or think that public media absorb the subscriptions that the private sector could benefit from.
A wave of liberalisation has rapidly increased the number of outlets, attracting a large number of job seekers who became journalists without any training. Less than 10 percent of active journalists are graduates of a journalism school, with obvious consequences on the quality of their work. Despite the existence of a code of ethics since 1991, only few journalists comply with professional standards. The processing of the information they provide is often random. Dissemination of unverified information is very common and some media are used to carry out personal attacks on behalf of politicians striving to achieve desired positions in administration, or by the opposition to criticise the ruling party. Some marabouts (Muslim religious teachers considered as holy) use media to criticise other preachers or to promote their spiritual services. However, there are also examples of journalists who make the necessary efforts to promote quality journalism.