• A version of this post appeared on the blog "CPJ Blog." The views expressed are the author's own.
On Tuesday, while reporting on breaking news in Mali from studios in Atlanta, CNN Wire Newsdesk Editor Faith Karimi made an ominous observation that presaged the outcome of developments unfolding 5,000 miles away. "#Mali president @PresidenceMali has not tweeted in 10 hours after reports of gunfire and a coup attempt," she tweeted.
Earlier – as a mutiny by army soldiers over President Amadou Toumani Touré's handling of a conflict with separatist ethnic Tuareg rebels gained momentum in the Malian capital Bamako – the president's Twitter account had been quick to dismiss reports of trouble.
"Formal denial: the minister of defense is neither injured nor arrested. He is at his office where he is calmly going about his work day," read one tweet. Then came an admonishment to BBC reporter Yacouba Ouédraogo, who was tweeting in his personal capacity while reporting on the crisis. "Can you verify your source? There is no coup d'état in Mali. There is just a mutiny in the garrison of Kati." In another tweet, the person running the presidency's Twitter account offered a personal reassurance, downplaying the situation. "As proof, I am tweeting from the presidential palace. Some deserters and other military who do not want to go to the frontline have mutinied."
However, conflicting reports persisted, and journalists and others scrambled to get confirmation. "#Mali: Some mutineers control national TV, Africable TV. Someone to confirm their presence at Bamako's aeroport?" asked Ouédraogo, the journalist. Following the situation online from Farmington, Connecticut, Ousmane Diallo expressed his frustration. "We don't even know what to believe [France-based station] RFI reports that some ministers are under arrest and other news sites say that the mutineers control Bamako," he tweeted. "I'm very upset about the situation in #Mali and I would like to know what's really going on?" he added.
As the news grew into a global headline, Phil Paoletta, an expat based in Bamako, offered some advice for those just tuning in. "Anyone paying attention to #Mali for the first time-pls know that there is a lot more to this country than what you will read+see+hear today," he tweeted.
Indeed, Mali, until yesterday, had been one of the most stable and successful democracies in Africa, complete with free and abundant – though not always professional – media. In fact, the last time the Committee to Protect Journalists documented an attack on the Malian media was 2007.
The unexpected unrest prompted demands for reliable and contextual information. Mike Sefanov, a senior editor at Storyful, jumped on citizen reporter photos of the streets of Bamako and sought to contact their authors. "Hello, is this your photo? Did you take it yourself? Can the news networks use your photos of Bamako?" he tweeted to @ofalsen.
Evan Hill, an Al Jazeera English online producer, offered some direction for balanced coverage. "For news from #Mali follow @presidencemali and @martinvogl," he tweeted. Martin Vogl, a Bamako-based freelance journalist, was reporting for the BBC and other news outlets and became an authoritative source for international media. One of his tweets – "National radio and television in Mali have been cut. Soldiers have taken over the [state broadcaster] ORTM building" – was retweeted 71 times. Fabien Offner, another journalist on the ground, cast some doubt on the suggestion that soldiers were merely mutinying to demand better equipment to fight rebels. "In any case in Bamako, the military have apparently enough munitions for fun shooting in the air," he tweeted.
The military's seizure of state media drew apprehension about the intentions of the mutineers. "Black screen on ORTM....It brings about bad memories," tweeted Mariam Diaby. The station went off the air for a few hours before returning with musical programs. "While dramatic events unfold in Bamako, ORTM offers us all kinds of musical genres," tweeted Daouda Sangaré. Then an indication of an imminent announcement: "#Mali state tv back on air. Statement by 'soldiers' due soon, according to message on screen," tweeted Reuters journalist David Lewis.
The suspense drew some banter on Twitter while the country's fate hung in the balance. "#Malian military does not seem to understand meaning of instant! Over an hour now still no message," tweeted Abdul Tejan-Cole. "So, have they decided or not? They have almost exhausted all the repertoire of Malian music," tweeted @Ogobere. "So, if the mutineers continue to impose [musical program] Top Etoile on us, there will be a revolution as early as this evening," the same user joked.
As the wait stretched into today's early hours, the same @Ogobere turned his humor to the army itself. "Sleep has tried to attack me. But like the Malian army, I have proceeded to a tactical retreat," he tweeted. "Tactical retreat," referred to a term the military used to describe the humiliating rout of troops at the Tessalit army base, a major military installation in the country's north, which was run over by rebels in a deadly armed attack earlier this month.
Finally, images and sounds from state television began to change. "We hear the mutineers in the hallways of the public TV. Beginning of the liquidation of the Malian democracy," tweeted Solo Niaré. For those outside Mali, Natalie Grillon offered a way to get the news directly. "watch ortm here http://tv.senego.com/ortm-en-direct/ for military announcement," she tweeted.
Twitterers like @babtwittter and @Mbokoniko were among the first to post photos showing the faces of the mutineers-turned-coup leaders. "The new masters of Mali" read the caption of a screen shot of the live announcement by @babtwitter. Another screen shot came with chilling news: "the new CNRDRE power calls for the suspension of the constitution, dissolution of institutions. Nothing on [President] #ATT." Soon, videos of the announcement emerged on Youtube.
Calling itself the National Committee for the Redress of Democracy and Restoration of the State (CNRDRE is the acryonym in French), the junta drew immediate criticism. "The Malian military seize power within 1 month and a half of presidential elections scheduled for 29 April, 2012," pointed @JusticeJFK, adding "This is one of the + ridiculous coups d'état that Africa has known. What will the putschists promise? An election? It's in 1 month!"
Journalist and Columbia University professor Howard French offered some contextual analysis about the ousted president. "No political prisoners in Mali. No jailed journalists. ATT not perfect, but far better than many others," he tweeted. Another tweet, by Andrew Lebovich, summarized the feeling of Mali observers. "Sigh. So much for that Malian democracy."
Today, the first post-democracy day, most independent Malian newspapers, including Malijet and Journal du Mali, published as normal and independent radio stations such as Radio Kledu and Radio Kayira were on air covering the coup, local journalists told CPJ. However, the state newspaper, L'Essor, was leading its website today with a sports story and made no mention of the coup.
While the future of Mali's hitherto free press is unclear, the Twitter narrative demonstrated the ways in which traditional media are increasingly less relevant in any case. "Marking papers, with one ear tuned to RFI. But def got more quality reporting from Twitter today about #Mali than from any other medium," tweeted Philippe M. Frowd, a MacMaster University doctoral student living in Canada. As if acknowledging Frowd, traveler Hans-Peter Anzinger opened a Twitter account today, disclosing that he was in Bamako. "Cause of the military in Bamako Mali I desided to be part of the twitter thing ;-)" he wrote on his Twitter profile.
Mohamed Keita is advocacy coordinator for CPJ's Africa Program. He regularly gives interviews in French and English to international news media on press freedom issues in Africa and has participated in several panels. Follow him on Twitter: @africamedia_CPJ.