columnBy Farooq Kperogi
As a journalism teacher and scholar (and a former journalist), I'm deeply pained by what seems to me the progressive descent of Nigerian journalism to the low-water marks of incuriousness, credulity, and vacuity. The past few weeks have been particularly too painful to bear.
First, in the wake of the abduction of nearly 300 schoolgirls in Chibok, Borno State more than a month ago, no Nigerian news organization, to my knowledge, sent reporters to Chibok until after foreign news organizations showed them the way. Nigerians newspapers appeared to be only interested in uncritically reporting on the pathetic buck-passing between the federal government and the Borno State government.
But that's even a more tolerable professional indiscretion than the Nigerian news media's tragic surrender to schoolboyish social media chatter. At least three events bear this out.
In a rambling, badly written May 10, 2014 cover story titled, "Chibok: American Marines locate abducted girls in Sambisa forest," <http://nairalandnews.com/4983/chibok-american-marines-locate-abducted-girls-sambisa-forest/> Saturday Vanguard reported that US marines not only identified the exact location where the abducted school girls were held histage; it also arrested a Boko Haram kingpin who masterminded the abduction. The "report" is worth reproducing in its embarrassing detail:
"The sources told Saturday Vanguard in Abuja that members of the United States Marines who are already in Maiduguri following the promise by President Barak Obama to assist Nigeria in rescuing the abducted girls, located the girls inside the forest, using some Satellite equipment which combed the forest, located an assembly of the young girls and sent the images back to the Marines on ground in Maiduguri.
"Aside locating the whereabouts of the girls in the dense forest, it was also, further gathered that one of the leaders of terrorist group [sic] who participated in the abduction of the girls was arrested by a combined team of the US Marines and Nigerian forces.
"Sources said that the Boko Haram leader was arrested, through an advanced interceptor equipment which was used to track the terrorist while exchanging information with his colleagues in Sambisa Forest about the movements of American and Nigerian soldiers in Maiduguri.
"His phone was subsequently traced to a location in Maiduguri where he was arrested and handed over to the Nigerian military."
For good measure, Saturday Vanguard published the alleged picture of the Boko Haram terrorist in the hands of US marines. This was a complete fabrication that started life in Nigerian social media circles. The picture is actually an old picture of a man who was arrested by French soldiers in the Central African Republic. But Vanguard, which is supposed to be one of Nigeria's oldest and most prestigious newspapers, rushed to press with the "story"-and the picture- without any form of corroboration from any credible source.
As if that's not egregious enough, on May 27, 2014, many newspapers, including-yet again-the Vanguard, went to town with another transparently fictitious report about Borno women who invoked a magical spell to subdue Boko Haram terrorists who had reputedly come to attack them. Vanguard quoted a nameless eyewitness <http://www.vanguardngr.com/2014/05/women-demobilise-boko-haram-insurgents-borno/> of this putative supernormal encounter to have said that Boko Haram "attackers invaded the village yesterday on motorcycles but met some women, adding 'they wanted to hit the women with sticks but when they raised the sticks, their hands refused to descend.'" Hmm. The hands of the Boko Haram terrorists "refused to descend"!
In my effort to find out if any other mainstream newspaper reported this incident I found Daily Trust's report of May 27 titled "Women arrest Boko Haram fighters in Borno <http://220.127.116.11/daily/top-stories/25136-women-arrest-boko-haram-fighters-in-borno>," which was even more dramatic and fantastical than Vanguard's report. Like Vanguard, Daily Trust also quoted an unnamed eyewitness to have said, "The insurgents wanted to attack the women but their guns did not work. They tried hitting them with the boot of their guns but mysteriously, all the hands of the insurgents hung until youth and vigilantes in the area mobilized and killed them."
I didn't know whether to laugh or cry when I read this. I did both.
That modern newspapers like the Vanguard and Daily Trust would give space to this sort of fictional, superstitious bunkum dispirited me deeply. It killed the last vestige of hope I had that we might be able to leapfrog into the 21st century. We are probably condemned to be stuck in the Stone Age where ignorance and childlike obsession with superstitions and irrational, unfounded beliefs hold sway.
The story of the "mystical" Borno women also started in the Nigerian social media. A couple of days ago, a stock photo of gun-toting Malian women "bent on revenge against Tuareg rebels" (as The Times of London, from whose website the picture was downloaded <http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/news/world/africa/article3608925.ece>, put it) surfaced on Facebook. Suddenly, a story was spun around the picture, and the story was that the women in the photo were Borno women who repelled Boko Haram attacks with the instrumentality of magic spells.
Vanguard-and Daily Trust-learned their lesson. They didn't publish the picture to accompany their stories.
But what kind of reporter would report those kinds of patently false stories? What is even worse is, what kind of editor would allow a fantastical story, with no authentic pictorial corroboration, based solely on the secondhand account of an unnamed source to be published in his her paper? What happened to age-old journalistic skepticism? What happened to the ideal of verification before publication?
When you add to this to the countless stories in our newspapers about birds transmogrifying into witchy old women (another gem from Vanguard <http://www.vanguardngr.com/2014/05/bird-turns-old-woman-lagos/> and other supposedly reputable newspapers), you know Nigeria's problem isn't just high-level corruption and incompetence in the highest reaches of government; it's also irresponsible and credulous journalism.