Lagos — The 4th annual Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism lecture which was recently held in Lagos dwelled on the state of insecurity in Nigeria and the role of the media. More than any other sector in the country, the stakeholders say the media need to do more with unbiased reportage.
As major stakeholders in the media and civil society organisations converged at the fourth annual Wole Soyinka media lecture series which was recently held in Lagos, the focal point of discussion was media accuracy in the reportage of Nigeria's security challenge which has been worsened with insurgency in the northern part of the country.
The keynote speaker at the event, Malam Mohammed Haruna, who is also the Executive Director of Tawada Media Limited and respected political analyst, spoke extensively on the theme of the lecture; "Media and civil liberties when the clouds of fear gather". The lecture was further dissected by Gbenga Adefaye, President, Nigerian Guild of Editors; Colonel Gabriel Ajayi (rtd), who represented Comrade Shehu Sani and Patrick Obuseh, who also stood in for John Momoh of Channels Television.
Picking off with a verbatim copy of an email message he said he received from one Adesina Fagbenro-Byron 48 hours before the lecture, Haruna gradually built into the theme of the lecture, mincing no word in partly blaming the media with a kind of stereotype reportage that seems to have greeted the terror campaign of Jama'atu Ahl-Sunnati Lil Da'awati wal Jihad also known as Boko Haram, which began three years ago.
According to Haruna, Nigeria's ethno-religious kind of politics cannot be extricated of being a major factor in the distorted story of Boko Haram insurgency. Yet the media is also guilty of culpability, perhaps, as a result of ownership influence or regional cum religious leaning.
"The regional/religious mould of our politics is partly responsible for this distortion of the Boko Haram story. However, part of the blame must go to the Nigerian media for the way it has reported the story; the Southern and Christian dominance of the ownership and control of the Nigerian media has all too often led to an anti-Northern/Muslim bias in the coverage of not only the Boko Haram story but also of most stories of ostensibly ethnic and religious conflicts in the country," Haruna said.
The guest lecturer argued that effects of such media reportage have not only influenced the thinking of ordinary Nigerians like Fagbenro-Byron, but have also succeeded in shaping the opinions of prominent Nigerians. Haruna buttressed that line of thought with instances of statements credited to Nobel Laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka, the Senate President, David Mark and President Goodluck Jonathan at different fora in recent time.
Citing Soyinka well publicised article that was published in January 2012, The Butchers of Nigeria, Haruna quoted the opening paragraph of the said article thus: "Over the past year, Nigeria's home-grown terror group, Boko Haram, has escalated its deadly attack against Christian and government targets, with the aim of establishing a Sharia state in the country's north."
The keynote speaker also took the pain of including statements credited to the Senate President at the Northern Peace Summit organized by Arewa Consultative Forum in December 2011 and was also re-echoed at the recent senate retreat held at Uyo, the Akwa Ibom state capital. President Jonathan's statement was neither left un-included. The President's comparison of Boko Haram insurgency as being worst when compared with Nigerian civil war of the late 60s, didn't escape Haruna's scrutiny.
Still pontificating on media prejudices, Haruna brought into focus, the alleged Fulani herdsmen's attack on mourners who were attending a mass burial event in Barkin Ladi area of Plateau state. The unfortunate incident had claimed the lives of Senator Gyang Datong and the Majority Leader of the Plateau State House of Assembly, Gyang Fulani. According to Haruna, virtually all the newspapers accepted the state Government House's more sensational version of the events at face value, namely that the two prominent legislators were shot to death, "apparently because the version conformed to the stereotype reportage of the evil, Christian hating Hausa/Fulani Muslim."
"The accurate version, it turned out, was that the two died as a result of shock following the unexpected attack which led to a stampede. Of course, this did not make the attack any less despicable and condemnable. However, the importance of accurately reporting what happened became apparent during a visit by the state's governor, Da David Jang, to condole and commiserate with a member of the House of Representative, Simon Mwadkon, who had survived the attack...'Everybody,' said Mwadkon, 'was racing away, but the Senator slumped and there was a race to take him.' This version tallied with what members of the senator's family had said about of how the senator died. But it was the version most of the newspapers chose to downplay or even ignore," Haruna narrated.
Haruna, however, quick to note in his lecture that all media organizations have their biases, even during the best of times. According to him, such biases are often amplified in times of conflict, whereas it is at that period the media ought to strive even harder for accuracy, balance, fairness and objectivity in their news coverage as well as their commentaries.
His argument; "The reason is simple. Only an adherence to these and other time-honoured tenets of professionalism can protect the media from being used by either side in a conflict for propaganda. The media must remember that when the clouds of fear gather, as they have in Nigeria since the rise of Boko Haram terror in the last three years, the civil rights of individuals and even their more basic civil liberties as guaranteed by the Constitution can be easily jeopardized by both insurrectionists and government alike through the use of fear."
Continuing from where Haruna hanged his argument, Gbenga Adefaye, President, Nigerian Guild of Editors (NGE) said although the media is currently doing its best in view of the current security challenge Nigeria faces, it is pertinent for the practitioners to shun the temptation of stereotyping which, he noted, can endanger peaceful co-habitation in the country. According to him "If an attack is carried out somewhere and a militant group known as MEND claims responsibility or a bomb explodes somewhere and a group known as Boko Haram claim responsibility, it is the duty of the media to reflect that a particular group has thus claimed responsibility. But the media must avoid finger pointing and labeling. For instance, we must not be saying everybody who hails from South/South is a militant or say everybody for the North East is a member of Boko Haram," Adefaye said.
In his remark, Colonel Gabriel Ajayi (rtd) who represented the Kaduna-based rights activist, Shehu Sanni, said considering the risk inherent in journalism as a profession, it would not be out of place if print and broadcast media owners encourage their reporters to take survival trainings as that would enhance professionalism and personal safety.
"I think it makes sense if journalists who cover crisis areas are given adequate security training because that will make them function optimally whenever they are asked to perform their assign duties," Ajayi said.
Beyond the task of objective reportage, the guest speaker and other discussants, all agreed that if the challenges of insecurity are to be confined to dustbin of history, concerted efforts from government and other concerned stakeholders must be discharged to tackle both remote and immediate causes of the menace. And these include tackling illiteracy and ignorance, poverty and inequities as well as reducing the worsening case of endemic corruption, among others.
"I believe without doubt that corruption lies at the heart of the problems of this country. This disease of corruption has to be fought if we wish to bring an end to the endemic poverty that has become so pervasive in the land. A situation where a well-connected few in the public and private sectors live in soulless opulence at the expense of the vast majority of ordinary Nigerians is simply unacceptable," Haruna said.
"The media on its part," Haruna further added, "must play its watchdog role of holding our politicians and other public figures accountable to the people. They must never allow the clouds of fear that has hovered over the country these past few years to divert their attention from speaking out against any government's subversion of the civil rights its citizens have been guaranteed by its Constitution."