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Why We Canceled an Event in the US Featuring West African Journalists


A resident returned to his home in the Mopti region of Mali after attacks in February 2019 in the Bankass Circle area, where at least 18 people died by shooting and burning. Deadly violence is increasing in central Mali, targeting civilians, Malian soldiers and peacekeepers with no resolution in sight. MARCO DORMINO/Minusma

Over the past eight months, we at the Mali-based independent news website have been working on a documentary film called “The Forgotten Ones,” about the urgent security crisis in Mali’s Mopti region, where civilians, soldiers and United Nations peacekeepers are being increasingly killed.

As part of our efforts to engage more directly with audiences in the United States, we invited our co-founder, Abdoul Salam Hama, and our Niger correspondent, Omar Hama Saley, to come to New York and Washington, D.C., to discuss their work reporting on the Sahel region. American audiences would greatly benefit from seeing this film and hearing the perspectives of both Abdoul Salam and Omar on the security crisis in the Sahel region as the United States is rapidly expanding its military footprint in the region.

PassBlue, an independent women-led news site that covers the UN, generously sponsored — with support from a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York — the travel costs of Abdoul Salam and Omar coming to the US. PassBlue also helped organize a screening of the film and panel discussion at the UN to be held on April 23 — preparations that took months to do for an event that would have been well attended. A Washington-based think tank organized another event for April 26.

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Even though both Abdoul Salam and Omar submitted all documents on time to the US embassies in their countries and had favorable responses to their visa applications, they were later flagged for “extreme vetting” measures that President Trump put in place as part of the executive order establishing the Muslim ban, through a form called DS-5535.

DS-5535 requires very detailed information about the applicants’ family, travel history and social media. The process is highly opaque and both the US embassies in Mali and Niger gave no time frame for its completion. According to a New York Times essay, DS-5535 reminds us that “mind-numbing bureaucracy can be an effective family-separation tool if that’s your game,” and the process can last months if not years. Most of the information required for the DS-5535 form cannot be verified from Washington, meaning that the process is designed to stop black Muslim voices like Abdoul Salam and Omar from reaching audiences here in the US.

Because Abdoul Salam and Omar were submitted to this racist, Islamophobic process, they are currently unable to travel to America. We have thus had to cancel both events in New York and Washington, which is a travesty not just for our organization and for the audiences who had hoped to hear our message but also for the democratic process.

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The US military is about to complete a $110 million drone base in Niger, yet the American government will not let two top journalists from Niger and Mali enter the US in a timely, transparent manner. We ask that the State Department grant Abdoul Salam’s and Omar’s visas immediately, so that we can reschedule our events in the US.

This is an opinion essay.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Joe Penney is a writer, filmmaker and photographer who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Lagos. He directed a documentary, “Sun of the Soil: The Story of Mansa Musa,” about the reign of Mali’s 14th-century king. Penney’s articles and essays have been published by The Intercept, The New York Times, Quartz, Reuters and Paris journals. He was West African photo bureau chief for Reuters, and his pictures have appeared in Geo, Jeune Afrique, Le Monde, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and Time, among others. He has photographed presidential elections in Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Mauritania, Nigeria, Senegal and Sierra Leone as well as the 2012 coup in Mali and the French military intervention in 2013, Mauritanian refugee camps, mining sites in Niger, migrants in the Sahel, counterterrorism campaigns in Cameroon, the 2013-2014 conflict in Central African Republic and the people’s coup in Burkina Faso in 2014. Penney co-founded, a news company covering the Sahel region, in 2013. In Africa, he has lived in Ivory Coast, Mali and Senegal. He graduated from McGill University in Montreal and speaks English, French and Spanish.

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