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The UN Helps Journalists in Conflict Areas, but Cannot Protect Them


A Malian soldier fires an AK-47 during fighting with Islamists in Gao
A Malian soldier fires an AK-47 during a fight with Islamists in Gao, February 2013. JOE PENNEY/REUTERS

Two radio journalists from France were killed on Nov. 2 outside Kidal in the northern desert reaches of Mali. The journalists, Ghislaine Dupont and Claude Verlon, both in their 50s, were kidnapped right in front of a Tuareg official’s home by gunmen and found dead just miles from town, their throats slashed and bodies fresh with bullets. They are the first journalists to be killed in Mali this year, and they had been flown to Kidal from Bamako, the capital, by United Nations peacekeeping troops.

Dupont, a reporter, and Verlon, a sound technician, had been on assignment for Radio France Internationale, a state-backed network, and were found by French military forces shortly after the two had been dumped into the desert by the gunmen as a French patrol chased the abductors by helicopter and vehicle, to no avail. The journalists had been kidnapped into a truck immediately after interviewing Ambeiry Ag Rhissa, the spokesman for the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, a Tuareg separatist group.

Dupont and Verlon were veteran journalists; Dupont spent 27 years covering the continent since joining the French network in 1986. She was Radio France’s correspondent in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, at one point, before she was kicked out of the country for her reporting.

A French government source said the two had asked to be taken to Kidal with troops from France’s Operation Sérval mission, but ended up going with UN peacekeeping forces after Sérval refused to take the journalists because of Kidal’s precarious security. French, Mali and UN forces are stationed in Kidal, though the bulk of France’s are based in Gao in the southwest. (The UN has about 550 troops and 114 police officers in Kidal.)

As for the UN’s policy on conveying non-UN personnel, Farhan Haq, a spokesman for the secretary-general said in an e-mail that “peacekeeping missions often facilitate the transportation of journalists and other individuals who request it. This case was no different.”

He added that “while MINUSMA facilitated their transportation, the two journalists were in Kidal working independently.” (Minusma stands for the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali.)

Journalists and nongovernmental organization employees regularly rely on the good graces of the UN to help them travel to remote, risky locations. One journalist working in West Africa who has been driven to difficult desert locales said he was not aware of the exact UN policy on such services, but he surmised that “if you get to know” the UN people and they feel comfortable with you, they’ll transport you if they can.

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Another journalist, Evelyn Leopold, a columnist who covers the UN for The Huffington Post, used to travel occasionally with the UN during her 17-year career as UN bureau chief for Reuters, saying it was “always safe.” That includes trips to Chad, Somalia and Sudan. “But then again I did not go to that many places with the UN. But often the UN transportation is safer than any other way to get there, which might not be saying much.”

A veteran journalist working in France, preferring to speak on background, said that she traveled on a UN flight in Niger last year, but that “it was carefully planned and organized” by a large nongovernmental organization, whom she went with while working on articles about famine.

Many military, including the United States, will transport journalists if they are officially embedded with the troops. And one female American journalist, working in Bamako and preferring not to be named, spent days living in the Mali military barracks in Kidal recently, finding it not only secure but hospitable.

Journalists would be hard-put to lose the services of the UN when working in dangerous places around the world. A former foreign correspondent for The New York Times said she had taken many trips with the UN, including an antipiracy hunt on a patrol boat in the Gulf of Thailand with the refugee agency. “Sometimes there is no other way to get there, wherever there is,” she wrote in an e-mail.

The UN expressed its condolences publicly to the French journalists’ families as well as the French government through a Security Council statement, saying that it strongly “condemned the kidnapping and assassination.” The council also stressed that those responsible for the deaths would be held accountable and called on Mali to “swiftly investigate the incident and bring the perpetrators to justice.” (Numerous rebels have been arrested in the area since the murder, and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has also claimed responsibility for the deaths.)

But on a jarring dissonant note from the UN, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was in Bamako, Mali’s capital, two days after the murders, for a scheduled visit to focus on the country and the greater Sahel region. While there, he did not refer to the murders in his speeches, but announced the UN’s new program to help improve Mali’s economic and security conditions, including to install “early warning systems to address security threats” and increase the ability to “address cross-border dangers, including terrorism.”

The secretary-general was joined in Bamako by top officials from the African Union, the World Bank, the African Development Bank, the European Union and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to introduce the UN program at a regional meeting. Though Ban did not mention the deaths of the journalists in his speeches, he said to reporters in Mali: “Now with the active intervention and support of the international community, I think the security situation in the North has approved and I think there is a tendency that many people are returning to the North. That is quite encouraging.”

Addressing another question, he said: “We are here to express our solidarity and show support — because you are still suffering from this remnant of this situation. The most recent is the abduction and killing of two French journalists. That reminds us that the security situation is not over and that our action — comprehensive action —  should be taken urgently.”

A journalist working in France who knew Dupont and Verlon said that they went to Africa often for Radio France Internationale. Verlon was supposed to be covering the Tour de France this summer, but he wanted to go to Mali instead because he loved it there, the journalist said, so he switched assignments when Radio France broadcast the presidential elections in July. He and Dupont reported on the elections in Bamako and Kidal that month.

They were in Mali this time around for parliamentary elections taking place later in November, working on a special package on the vote, scheduled to go out Nov. 7 and now canceled.

Verlon had a son but was not married, and Dupont was single. Their bodies were transported by Air France from the Bamako airport to Paris on Nov. 5.


Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.

Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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