It is the Nigerian equivalent of the overarching question in the aftermath of the seductive thesis of ‘CNN Effect’ which argues that media reporting of humanitarian crises shortly before and immediately after the end of the Cold War were such that constrained powerful states to hasten their intervention and restore peace in far flung corners of the world. British journalist, Nik Gowing problematised this claim, went to work researching it. He came out with a devastating conclusion that almost dismissed ‘CNN Effect’. The way the media report (humanitarian) crises only pushes a government to act if the government itself did not already have a position was what his evidence told him. Where that is not the case, said Gowing’s report to the Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict, no amount of front page stories or editorials would move the hard headed realists in Pentagon or the EU bureaucrats in Brussels to move troops to any and every flash points. His research report was in 1997.
In 2007, there was a powerful support for Gowing’s position when General Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian Commander of the UN troops in Rwanda wrote in the Introduction to a book on the Genocide by another British journalist that because all the great powers had decided against sending troops to Rwanda, no media reporting or misreporting changed anything. Since then, only journalists who have not acquainted themselves with the literature go about endlessly hawking the idea of the power of the media to set agenda without connecting such claims to the power context within which such could happen. It is only now that the Nigerian variant of that question is being posed. That is understandable in the sense that it was only with Boko Haram insurgency that Nigeria came face to face with the question of how the media could play its role in transforming the violent extremist convictions that drive the insurgent impulse. In this case, the issue was whether the media, on balance, has been amplifying the insurgency and insurgents or been hindering them, consciously and/or professionally?
It was not a secret session but an understandably discreet, reflective exercise within the context of transforming violent extremism and inclusive peace by the Nigeria Office of one of the conflict transformation and peace building INGOs. But, instead of a single journalist researching and writing a report on the question, the NGO gathered selected journalists across Nigeria to turn on themselves and see how well or otherwise they have fared and how far the media still have left to go. So, what did they find in the self-reporting?
From universities to think tanks, government departments and sundry actors, some of the world’s best brains are still wrestling with the slippery concept of Terrorism. Up to a point, the United States alone had four different definitions. When is an act terrorist? Journalists, media advisers and many government officials hardly distinguish between a guerrilla tactic and a terrorist act. Experts have been worried that an attack on a military check-point, for instance, ends up being reported in the media and spoken of by senior government officials as terrorism. The discussion in this reflective session showed that Nigerian journalists are no exception to this confusion. But while most global media establishments have responded to the confusion by alerting their reporters worldwide that ‘one man’s terrorist could be another man’s freedom fighter’, that appears not too well done yet at home. That is probably because Boko Haram presents no difficulty. It is a classic terrorist organisation given its explicit political goal of seeking to decenter the state and in pursuit of which it attacks groups so as to send violent messages to the Nigerian State to make a choice.
A major presentation to the session threw a number of charges on the media: taking pictures of genocide in Rwanda and passing it off as a Boko Haram atrocity; some journalists sitting down in a newsroom in Abuja or Lagos to imagine and script a story of a Boko Haram attack somewhere in the Northeast; media houses with journalists without clarity and/or research capability, among others. Set against this lead paper as it were and led by an energetic session coordinator, the discussion began. The lead question for this segment was for journalists in session to search their conscience and bring out what they think the media might be getting wrong.
Only a few out of the points raised can be taken here. One of such is the notion of the media being stuck to a reporting pattern structured by stereotypes and polarities. But there was no agreement although the ‘ayes’ were more vocal than the ‘nays’. The only one voice that did not accept that charge against the media could not win because the speaker had no empirical evidence beyond stressing that best practices in conflict reporting forbids stereotyping. Someone replied by citing a recent major television network’s story that he claimed used an ethnic identity, going ahead to say that the use of ‘Muslim fundamentalists’ or ‘Fulani herdsmen’ are good examples of stereotyping. Someone else said reporting that made no distinction between kidnapping and terrorism is an example of a stereotyping and polarising journalism which could have the effect of crediting Boko Haram with more capacity than it has.
Second poser for reflection was: Is the media amplifying the claims of insurgents. Again, there was no consensus. The critics of the media on this said all the major newspapers would come out with double-decker headlines the next morning whenever Abubakar Shekau, Boko Haram leader made any claims. This, said the contributors, is journalistically bad because similar prominence is rarely accorded similar claims by the military. “When the military makes a claim about 5, 10, 20 Boko Haram leaders killed, it is not reported as Shekau’s”, another voice was heard thereto. Yet another speaker said “some media go extra mile in reporting figures of death thereby assisting the terrorists”, arguing how such is how the terrorists always feel and say they have registered what they always call a maximum damage.
The opponents then took their turn. One wanted the earlier speakers to tell him how journalists were to verify what Shekau might be claiming in a video outing. “Send someone to Sambisa?”, Sambisa being the forest Boko Haram commanders have reportedly converted into their operational base. The most vicious upper cut came from the voice that said it didn’t make journalistic sense to ignore a man the military claimed to have killed but only for him to reappear, sometimes with video showing embarrassing balance of power between his forces and the military. A tie!
A subset of this question was whether the Nigerian media reports sometimes back that Boko Haram was better armed than the Nigerian Armed Forces should ever have happened. Earlier on, someone said it should never have happened and that it was lack of patriotism. Contrary argument said all such reports were corroborated by subsequent events neither the military nor the government could even cover up. Nobody remembered to mention that this idea of insurgents being better armed than the Nigerian military was also the basis of animus against the global media coverage of MEND’s insurgency. If that had been brought in, then it might have contributed to showing how persistent this propaganda has been. But it remains propaganda because insurgents do not normally engage established militaries in conventional warfare for the sole reason that they can never win such wars. So, they rely more on improvisation. That makes it it odd to compare most insurgent groups with most national armies.
In all, the tension between the different standpoints in the reflective sessions mirrors problem with reporting terrorism. Failure to report terrorism is complicity in creating a false sense of security or of misleading the public, the results of which could be imponderable, especially for women and children. At the same time, however, reporting terrorism is inherent complicity in terrorism because terrorism is almost completely dependent on being reported. If an attack by Boko Haram is denied media coverage, it would amount to a severe de-oxygenation of the insurgency, although this has to take note that today’s terrorist organisations come along with own media pack.
The last poser was: what is the great thing the Nigerian media has been doing as far as reporting Boko Haram insurgency is concerned. For some, that must be exposing the conditions of the IDP camps, especially the lack of schools for those in the age bracket. For others, it is the concentrated focusing on rape in those camps which goes against the collective conscience of Nigerian journalists. The verdict on this seemed to be the point by the fellow who said that, in spite of everything, the Nigerian media has kept the Boko Haram story going. The inference is: imagine what Nigeria would be today if there is no coverage of the insurgency, leaving room for rumours and all manners of speculations.
It was a many sided debate from which only the thematic samplers bound to interest other stakeholders within the wider agenda of deradicalisation and peace has been highlighted. The sharp and rich repertoire of the attendees shows an active media constituency at work in the search for peace in Nigeria. It would be best if the exercise is widened in terms of participation, (the media, the military, civil society, academics, etc) and held more frequently. Then Nigeria’s engagement with transforming violent extremism would have become a most robust and rounded one.