Nigerian Journalists & Boko Haram: A Dangerous Symbiosis By Law Mefor

Journalist killed by Boko Haram

May 27, 2014 – Nigerian Media & Boko Haram: A Dangerous Symbiosis By Law Mefor

The Nigerian Press and Boko Haram are feeding fat off each other. There is without a doubt an unspoken accord between the two – you rub my Back. I rub you back. As heinous as this may seem, it is indeed the reality and this has been the staying power of the terrorist group. For a fact, without the wild press reportage of the evil deeds of the sect in Nigeria, the group would probably have gone extinct. In the same way, without the newsfeeds easily provided and wildly reported by the Nigerian Press, some of the news outlets would have gone extinct also.

This unholy alliance needs to be placed in perspective and dissuaded if the nation will gain an upper hand in the fight against terror in any foreseeable future. Before taking a close look at this dangerous symbiotic relationship, it is important to acknowledge the trend as a global one, even though that of Nigeria appears to be increasingly reckless.

Around the world, recent history, specifically the past decade, has provided copious examples of the mutually beneficial relationship between terrorist organizations and the Press. As some remarkable terrorist attacks in history indicate, whether it is in the United States, Europe, the Middle East, or Nigeria and Africa, the architects of terrorism exploit the Press for the benefit of their operational efficiency, information gathering, recruitment, fund raising, and propaganda schemes. Whether it is arson by an environmental group such as MEND blowing up oil pipeline or mass destruction by a network of Boko Haram, as just happened in Kano, Nyanya and Jos, the perpetrators’ Press-related goals are the same: attention, recognition, and perhaps even a degree of respectability and legitimacy.

Since Boko Haram members are relatively few in numbers and therefore limited in terms of reach, they need the Press to achieve ubiquity and to maximize the impact and import of their despicable deeds. Press, in return, receives the attention of the public that is vital for its existence and benefits from bumper sales and huge limelight. To put it tersely, just as terrorism has to be communicated to have effect, the Press has to cover the incidents in such a way to benefit from the public’s eagerness to obtain information about terrorist attacks. It is, therefore, fair to believe that there is a mutually beneficial relationship between terrorism and today’s Press, be it unintended or not.

This symbiosis is indeed worth examining in greater detail, as it is as vicious and dangerous as it is largely overlooked. How and why Boko Haram utilizes Press tools, how and why the Press covers the aftermaths of the numerous Boko Haram attacks in Nigeria all need to be put in perspective. In fact, experts believe that without the Press’s coverage, the terrorist act’s impact is debatably wasted, for remaining narrowly confined to the impressions made directly to the victims only, rather than reaching the wider ‘target audience’ at whom the Boko Haram’s violence is actually aimed. It is important to note that Boko Haram is primarily interested in society, not the victims, and emphasizes that how the nation reacts is as important as the act itself.

Accordingly, winning the attention of the Press, national and foreign publics, and decision-makers in Aso Rock or a State government is one of the primary goals of Boko Haram . To this end, Boko Haram carefully selects the places in which they carry out their attacks in order to attract the best Press coverage. The obvious examples of this are the Boko Haram attacks at Police Force headquarters and UN building both in Abuja and St. Theresa Catholic Church Madala near Abuja and Eagle Square Abuja bombing by MEND during the Independence Day celebrations on October 1, 2010.

Indeed, the goals of Boko Haram are not solely confined to winning the attention of the masses. In addition to that, through the Press, they aim to publicize their political causes, inform both friends and foes about the motives for terrorist deeds, and explain their rationale for resorting to violence. They further aim to be treated like regular, accepted, legitimate world leaders. For the avoidance of doubt, Boko Haram leader, Abubakar Shekau has long gained celebrity status, no thanks to the Press. That is to say, for Boko Haram, the Press functions as a tool to shrink the power asymmetry between them and the Nigerian Governments at all levels.

In the ideological warfare, Boko Haram , through the Press, has succeeded in creating an atmosphere of fear and suspicion to legitimize their acts, and reach greater recesses of the Nigerian society. Given these motives, Boko Haram arguably carries out their attacks rationally and strategically with full awareness of the influence of the Press coverage on almost every segment of the Nigerian society and government officials of all levels. To illustrate this, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current leader of al-Qaeda, recently said; “al-Qaeda is in a battle, and more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the Press. Al-Qaeda is in a Press battle for the hearts and minds of the ummah”.

Boko Haram’s means of communication is greatly enhanced by technological advancements, which enable it to utilize Press tools with greater convenience. This includes publicizing their messages to the world via websites at their own discretion, as seen in the video footage of the Chibok girls shown by the sect.

Needless to say, terrorism is an attractive godsend for Press coverage, mainly because terrorist attacks make viewer or reader ratings surge and profits increase. To be more specific, terrorism has many aspects that make it a very attractive subject for the Press, as it has the elements of drama, danger, blood, human tragedy, miracle stories, heroes, shocking footage, and action. Another reason is that violence is a central and defining quality in contemporary television culture and is critical to the semiotic and financial momentum of contemporary Press organizations.

The problem does not lie in why the Press covers terrorism, but lies in how the Press covers terrorism. The Press covers terrorist acts by writing sensation-seeking, enlarging anecdotic stories, especially on who is to blame, repeating the same images over and over again, separating physical and mental health consequences of disasters, and creating new syndromes. In addition, the Nigerian Press traumatizes the Nigerian society by exaggerating the threats.

To understand how Boko Haram grabs the headlines almost daily, one should take a closer look at the mediums the Nigerian Press employs. The nation’s Press generally uses agenda setting and framing to highlight and make certain issues more prominent than others. Agenda setting is the theory that the more attention a media outlet pays to a certain phenomenon, the more importance the public attributes to such an issue. Framing, on the other hand, is selecting some aspects of a perceived reality and making them more prominent in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation for the item described. Thus, the words and images that make up the frame can be distinguished from the rest of the news by their capacity to stimulate support of or opposition to the sides in a political conflict.

The Nigerian Press indeed profits from the drama terrorism creates, and covers the terrorism-related news in a sensational way. Through employing these mediums the Nigerian Press directly and indirectly serve the interests of Boko Haram by amplifying and sensationalizing terror stories that could have produced a different effect if only played or toned down a bit.

Repeating the traumatizing scenes and stories may also serve the sect, as its goal is to be in the Press as often and long as possible. In addition, the nation’s Press’s bias and obsession of sensationalism also help them get the upper hand in using Press as a tool, create an atmosphere and politics of fear, and create ripe conditions for propaganda and recruitment following each terrorist attack.

The way out is first, desecuritization. There is no doubt that terrorism must be reported. However, the way the events are framed and the extent to which it is covered are also important. Accordingly, in order to alter the symbiotic relationship between terrorism and the Press, it is of high importance for the Press to reevaluate and change its rhetoric when covering the terrorism-related news and stories. The Press can desecuritize terrorism-related acts and stories through covering those incidents just as any other story in a more responsible and less “sensational” manner.

Achieving this may not only prevent Boko Haram from using Press coverage as an important publicity and recruitment tool, but may also prevent the emergence of an atmosphere of fear at the public level. It may also force government and security elite to make more rational decisions regarding countering terrorism and dealing with public outrage. Hence, news coverage with less repetition of horrific scenes, less traumatization, less sensation and more information and prudence are essential in the first place to break the symbiosis.

• Law Mefor, Forensic Psychologist and Journalist, is National Coordinator, Transform Nigeria Movement TNM, Abuja; +234-803-787-2893; e-mail: