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Nigerian editors in a time of crisis: It’s not our job to be cheerleaders and truth fudgers in the war against Boko Haram

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Azubuike Ishiekwene is the editor-in-chief at Leadership Media Group.

The media are like a double-edged sword, and in some ways, too, like fire – they can help to cook a meal; they can also set the house alight. The media can act as catalysts in conflict prevention, and can also potentially inflame it.

I was in the office on the morning of Tuesday, 13 July 2021 when a colleague rushed in with his phone.

He seemed quite animated, but there was also an edge of anxiety about him as he thrust his phone forward, stopping mid-speech and asking me to speak with the caller. I didn’t know who it was. So, I motioned to my colleague to end the call first and sit down.

He did, collected himself, and spoke. A federal minister, one of the very influential ones in government, had just called him to complain about the lead story for that day in the newspaper of which I am editor-in-chief, LEADERSHIP, headlined “Nigeria moves to tackle terrorists with robots”.

He said the minister was livid that our story was an exposé for Boko Haram and a great disservice to Nigeria’s war on terror. Even if it escaped the editor, how come the editor-in-chief also failed spectacularly to see that that story was leaking a vital state secret to the enemy?

I called the minister back on my colleague’s line. In vain did I try to explain that the story was actually a report from the Senate’s plenary. It was open and live. We were obliged, like other newspapers, to cover and report it.

In any case, why should a story about the planned use of drones be deemed a national security breach, when the military routinely calls press conferences to announce its order of, payment for and arrival dates of US-manufactured Tucano jets, one of its prized assets in the war against Boko Haram?

But the minister is not alone, as I found from a second incident just days ago. A statement on behalf of the government by the Senior Special Assistant to President Muhammadu Buhari on Media and Publicity, Malam Garba Shehu, on Monday, 18 October 2021, suggests very clearly that Buhari’s government seriously thinks that the media have insecurity on speed dial, stored with the shorthand: if it bleeds, it leads.

For example, the government said, if only the press would replace the ubiquitous phrase “rising insecurity” with “declining insecurity”, we might indeed begin to witness not only a decline in insecurity, but also a totally different perception of the decade-and-a-half-long war on terror. And doubtless too, we might also begin to see, without the malicious veil of bias, the great strides that Buhari has made in degrading, if not exterminating, Boko Haram.

But wait a minute. Are the media as powerful as they are often acclaimed and their forces as potent and even malevolent as the The York Morning Journal at the hands of William Randolph Hearst in the 20th century? Are media managers, especially editors, supposed to descend into the conflict arena as mediators, partisans, neutrals or agents of peace? Or as a combination of these?

Or was the US late-night show legend, Jon Stewart, right when he told The New York Times recently that when journalists pose as change agents, it’s either they’re taking themselves too seriously or perhaps those who believe them are taking them too seriously?

I would be silly to think that you’re reading this piece for the gospel of Peace Journalism, after which you would return to a world where the journalistic lamb and the societal lion would lie side by side. It would be naïve to believe – or even think – when journalism itself, if not politics, is facing a conflict of obsolescence.

When interests clash and disagreement occurs, and such disagreements escalate, we have conflict. Although the basis for conflict, whether at individual or societal level, might vary, most conflicts are a result of differences in opinion and scarcity of resources.

Here, I am dealing with conflicts involving groups defined by political affiliation, ethnicity, nationality, religion and other social identities.

If we look closely at groups that may operate to trigger or constrain violent struggles, politicians and faith leaders are high on the list. And we have seen how easily any or a combination of these groups can devolve into or stoke fanaticism, extremism and demagoguery.

Unfortunately, conflicts around the world have cost too many lives, brought too much suffering to too many ordinary people and have displaced even more, depriving them of their homes and livelihoods.

In 2003, Roy and Judy Eidelson’s Dangerous Ideas identified five individual-level core beliefs and group-level worldviews which, according to their research, propel groups towards conflict. The five core beliefs are superiority, injustice, vulnerability, distrust and helplessness.

Briefly, this theory explains why beliefs and worldviews, such as injustice and ethnocentrism – and not the media – are drivers of conflicts in Nigeria since independence.

Mediation, the second key word, is a voluntary process in which an impartial intermediary (the mediator) facilitates communication and promotes reconciliation between the parties which will allow them to reach a mutually acceptable agreement.

And the third, editor? One of the most pragmatic definitions I have known is the one by my teacher, Professor Olatunji Dare. He described the editor as “the one who decides what gets published”.

How do these three factors interact and interrelate? What roles do their interactions play in the emergence of conflicts, and where exactly does the press stand in the mix?

While it may be sensible to assume that the editor, guided by the basic professional requirements of accuracy, balance, fairness, objectivity and facts, should exercise reasonable judgement, there is a temptation to overestimate the role of the media in building consensus or mediating peace.

But which editor – which Nigerian editor – so desirous of cultivating peace and building consensus, can try any of the top non-journalist media influencers for size? Yemi Alade, Tiwa Savage and Funke Akindele have among them 42.3 million followers on Instagram alone – and that was before the Tiwa sex tape!

The top 10 Nigerian editors don’t come close, even if you throw in their media houses to make the number and add their entire social media footprint to the bargain! If current warfare is for hearts and minds and cyberspace is the theatre, how can editors influence outcomes with such limited reach?

That said, the media are like a double-edged sword, and in some ways, too, like fire – they can help to cook a meal; they can also set the house alight. The media can act as catalysts in conflict prevention, while they could also potentially inflame it.

The parties in a conflict are often concerned with making sure that the majority of people are on “their” side. And at the centre of that battle is who controls the narrative in the media and public spaces. As a result, there is a lot of potential for misrepresenting facts in the struggle for control and distribution of information.

Conflicting parties understand that information is power and insight can impact public discourse. They know that perception can be influenced by access to the media, as the Taliban have amply demonstrated in their second coming in Afghanistan. Key actors in a conflict thus seek to manipulate public perception; depending on their relative position of power and/or control of resources, they seek to either minimise or exaggerate a conflict.

As Steven Livingston, professor of media and public and international affairs at George Washington University, put it, weak actors in a conflict tend to use the media to “socialise” a conflict, while actors in a dominant position tend to use the media to “privatise” it.

The editor does not exist in a vacuum. To understand the role of the editor in a conflict – or in peacetime – it might be useful to first examine his or her role in the workplace, since editors are, by and large, catalysts in the media space.

In a paper by Joseph Olusegun Adebayo and Blessing Makwambeni, The limits of peace journalism, they examined the role of the press in three elections in Kenya, in 2008, 2013 and 2017. They concluded that while reportage in the Kenyan press was implicated in the violence that pushed the country to the brink of war in 2008 by brazenly taking sides and pitching ethnic groups against each other, the press played a significantly positive role five years later in the next election. Yet in 2017, the press was accused of “sacrificing democracy on the altar of peace” for suppressing stories about electoral fraud which it thought could stoke violence.

Why, in spite of its shortcomings and limitations, is so much faith invested in the ability of the press to “hold the line” and perhaps also act as a catalyst for conflict resolution and consensus building?

Section 22 of the Nigerian 1999 constitution requires the press to hold the government accountable. It’s also important to keep in mind that the press played an important historical role not only in helping the country attain political independence, but also as a champion of the common cause during decades of military rule when freedom of speech was severely abridged. So, there is both a statutory and an historical imperative for the press to shine the light.

The draw towards the press could also be as a result of a growing loss of confidence in other mechanisms for conflict management and resolution. The police are overworked and underpaid, the courts are not better off, while other mechanisms for mediation and arbitration are either comatose or out of reach. 

If the Nigerian fish is rotting from the head, it would be gratuitous to claim that the press is in good health. The misery of some editors who may even strive for professionalism, is compounded by largely compromised ownership structures, redundancies, poor remuneration and a weak ethical fibre further undermined by poor regulation; not to mention the onslaught of fake news, which appears to have significantly tarred civic spaces and tainted journalism in the eyes of outsiders.

The media are, by and large, plagued by the same social malaise threatening other segments of society, except that perhaps there remains a flicker of hope that in the plurality and diversity of the press and drawing from its rich historical legacy, there might yet be redemption.

The question is how? The most urgent, for me, is a professional framework. The Nigerian Media Council Bill is trash. It should be left on the garbage heap to suffer the slow, painful death it deserves.

But there’s a vacuum. Once the local ombudsman, announced by the Newspaper Proprietors’ Association of Nigeria, is up and running, the association should move quickly to establish a co-regulatory framework for the industry, with South Africa as a useful model. The watchdog cannot – and should not – be above transparency if it hopes to win public confidence.

Also, as the recent collaborative work on the Pandora Papers has shown, editors can work with colleagues across boundaries to share resources for the common good. The redundancy level in a number of Nigerian media houses – idle presses, huge office spaces, large inventory of unsold print copies, and a trove of unused daily news content – is extraordinary.

Yet empty pride keeps them not only from introspection, but also from the economies of scale that could come from sharing resources. 

As the editor iterates, integrates and manages interfaces, developing electronic copies of newspapers and streaming content to ensure presence on virtual platforms in order to escape the conflict of obsolescence, he or she also needs to navigate with caution, checking, cross-checking and fact-checking.

How successfully journalists manage the innovations and issues technology throws at them would determine whether or not and now far they succeed as mediators.

To paraphrase Pauly, journalists and editors need to play a more active role in educating and helping the public find solutions to the problems of the day. In other words, the continued relevance of journalism, whether in peacetime or in times of crisis, lies just as much in its inventiveness as in how it reinforces the agency of the citizen.

That is where journalism should make its stand. Not with extremists, fanatics and demagogues. And certainly not with politicians who love to fake outrage in the daytime but at sunset find time for photo ops with bandits strapped to the teeth with deadly weapons.

We can and should find our own way. DM

Azubuike Ishiekwene is Editor-In-Chief of Nigeria’s national daily newspaper, LEADERSHIP, based in Abuja.

This article is adapted from an address by Ishiekwene to the Annual Conference of Nigerian editors on 21 October 2021.

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