Last Friday, July 13, the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism (WSCIJ), Lagos, held the fourth of its annual Media Lecture Series, also named after the Nobel Literature Laureate. I was the keynote speaker. Professor Lai Oso, the dean of School of Communications, Lagos State University (LASU), was the moderator.
Three individuals (Gbenga Adefaye, Editor-in-Chief of Vanguard and President of the Nigerian Guild of Editors, Shehu Sani, renowned human rights activist and author, and Mr John Momoh, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Channels Television) and four institutions (the army, the police, the Ministry of Defence and the State Security Service [SSS]) were billed to discuss my submission.
Of the three individuals, Adefaye came in person. Colonel Gabriel Ajayi (retired), Sani’s prison mate for their alleged role in the “phantom” coup of 1995 against military ruler, General Sani Abacha, stood in for the human rights activist. Momoh was represented by Patrick Obuseh, Channel’s station manager.
None of the four institutions, whose briefs have a lot to do with our civil liberties, turned up or sent any apologies, in themselves a measure of the esteem in which they hold our liberties.
According to the WSCIJ, the lecture series “is designed to examine varying topical issues that bear salience on the performance of our media, the health of our country, and its democracy in keeping with the fact that only a media that constantly engages in deep reflection will be able to realise its full potential as a guardian of good governance and tribune of sustainable development.”
Given the topicality of the issue of widespread insecurity in the country, especially the one linked to the three-year old insurgency of Boko Haram – the Islamic sect whose declared mission is to Islamize Nigeria – it was not surprising that this year’s lecture was titled “Media and Civil Liberties When the Clouds of Fear Gather.”
According to the WSCIJ’s four-page brochure of the event, the Nigerian media “has been cowered in the face of the horror of terror especially with the dual bomb attacks of Thisday newspaper in Abuja and Kano (actually it was in Kaduna) on April 26, 2012 to which Boko Haram claimed responsibility with a promise to attack more media houses.”
Reading the brochure, I thought its conclusion about the media being cowed by Boko Haram, in the sense of either self-censoring their reports of, or glorifying, the sect’s violence out of fear, was certainly wrong. If anything, the media coverage of the sect has been as robust as those of any media can be in portraying the sect as the No 1, if not THE, problem of Nigeria, at least since 2009.
Indeed so much has the media come to loath the sect that it seems to have wittingly or unwittingly become a tool of government’s exploitation of the fear of Boko Haram to assault the civil liberties of Nigerians in the name of fighting religious extremism.
Since 2009 when the sect, which started in 2002 in Maiduguri, the Borno State capital, turned insurrectionist in the face of its constant harassment by the security forces at the instigation of the state authorities whose governance the sect had been trenchantly critical of, hundreds of Nigerians have been detained without trial, maimed or even killed, and their properties destroyed by the security forces on no better evidence than mere suspicions that they are members or even mere supporters or sympathisers of the sect.
You will search the Nigerian media almost in vain to read about any serious concern, never mind a sustained one, being raised about these flagrant trampling of the civil liberties of Nigerians. Instead the vast majority of the media have endorsed, and in some cases, even canvassed this highhanded approach to ending the sect’s terror. Indeed some of the media see this scorched earth approach, as an “appeasement,” to use Soyinka’s expression in his condemnation of Boko Haram in an article in January in which he described the sect as “The Butchers of Nigeria.” (To think the centre was named after the Nobel Laureate because of what its founders believe are, no doubt, his formidable credentials as “a central actor in the fight against oppression of all shades.”)
There can be no justification for the terrorist activities of Boko Haram. But the way the media has reported its activities you would be pardoned the conclusion that it is the only purveyor of terrorism in Nigeria. You can even get away with the assumption that its only targets are Christians and southerners.
The fact is that the sect has targeted Muslims and Northerners. It is also a notorious fact that there are non-Muslim militias that have engaged in revenge killings of Muslims and in the destruction of their mosques and properties. There are even evidences to show that on several occasions Christians have disguised themselves as Muslims to attack churches and fellow Christians in an evil agenda to set Christians and Muslims against each other.
In their 2003 book, WEAPONS OF MASS DECEPTION: The Uses of Propaganda in Bush’s War on Iraq, Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, two former American reporters working for the Centre for Media and Democracy founded in 1993 “to monitor and expose deceptive public relations campaigns and other propaganda sponsored by corporations and government,” quote James E. Lukaszewski, a public relations consultant for the Pentagon and major US corporations, as describing the relationship between media and terrorism as incestuous. “Media coverage and terrorism,” Lukaszewski reportedly said, “are soul mates. They feed off each other. They together create a dance of death – the one for political or ideological motives, the other for commercial success.”
Deriving from this observation, Rampton and Stauber came to the conclusion that the mass media, public relations, advertising and terrorism have one thing in common: “a one-sided approach to communications that can best be thought of as ‘a propaganda model.’”
This model, as opposed to the kind of model that is appropriate for a democracy, they argued, views communication as a way of indoctrinating a target audience. As such it feeds on the fears of its audience rather than appeal to their rationality.
In covering the Boko Haram insurrection and even the wider ostensibly religious conflicts that have predated Boko Haram, it seems to me that the Nigerian media have been more propagandist that factual and objective; they have behaved more as weapons of mass deception for ideological and commercial reasons, than as weapons of mass education of the people about the complexity that Nigeria is.
This has made it difficult, if not impossible, to isolate and deal with the Boko Haram terror because the media has chosen to blame virtually every terrorist activity in the land on the sect, or worse still, on Muslims in general.
It is obvious that this one-sided coverage of terrorism suites the country’s authorities just fine if only because it diverts attention away from their incredible venality – witness the many shocking trillion Naira scandals that have been exposed in the last couple of years alone – and incompetence.
No doubt Boko Haram poses an existential threat to Nigerians and to Nigeria itself. But it is not the only existential threat facing Nigerians and their country. And properly isolated it is not even the most serious threat.
Certainly the way the federal authorities have taken sides over the ostensibly religious conflict in the country, the most glaring manifestation of which was last Monday’s unbelievable 24-hour Federal Government ultimatum for the Fulanis, regarded as “settlers,” to vacate some areas in Plateau State over their violent conflict with the Berom “indigenes”, or face the wrath of the Federal might, poses a greater danger to the very existence of the country.
The sooner the Nigerian media begins to report the seemingly sectarian and ethnic conflicts in the country with more accuracy, balance and fairness than they have done so far, the better the chances of a lasting solution to the threats posed by these conflicts.