The Media’s False Alarm On Timbuktu Manuscripts
It was one of the greatest disasters in intellectual history, on par with the burning of the Great Library of Alexandria.
Earlier this week, as French troops liberated Timbuktu, Mali from the Islamist militias occupying the city, a giant trove of manuscripts dating back to the 13th century was supposedly destroyed. Up to hundreds of thousands of manuscripts, all but a few untranslated preserving the entire intellectual and cultural history in West Africa were burned by the militants. Except they weren’t.
As reporters have ventured into Timbuktu, it turns out that the manuscripts are almost all safe. As the AP reported: “People in the north Malian city who have knowledge of the documents reported that there was no malicious destruction of any library or collection, said the University of Cape Town, which helped fund a state-of-the-art library to house manuscripts.”
So why the fear-mongering and false reports from the press?
The Islamist militants occupying much of Northern Mali did wreak a path of unprecedented cultural destruction in Timbuktu, destroying hundreds of medieval tombs of Sufi Muslim saints, the veneration of which they found contrary to their brand of Islam. And other groups with similar ideologies, like the Taliban, famously destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan, giant statues of the Buddha dating back to the 6th century, before that country was liberated by United States in 2001. The assumption was that with this recent Islamic history of cultural vandalism that rivaled the original Vandals, that the manuscripts would be destroyed as well.
The difference is that unlike a tomb or a giant statute of the Buddha, manuscripts are portable and Malians hid them away. But the media missed this entirely and instead reported based on baseless rumors and a desire to make headlines. After all, an act of destruction rivaling the burning of the Great Library of Alexandria makes a far better story than a skirmish involving French soldiers on the edge of the Sahara.
Reporting in a war zone is difficult but that doesn’t mean journalists should take short cuts while doing it. There is an obligation to get the story right. That didn’t happen in Timbuktu.
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