Why Boko Haram Is Killing Thousands with Little Media Coverage

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The lead news story for many organizations continues to be ongoing coverage of the terrorist attacks that left seventeen dead in France. The January 7 shooting targeting staff of the controversial satirical paper, Charlie Hebdo, the shooting of a policewoman on January 8, and a hostage situation in a Kosher supermarket that ended in four deaths, shocked the international community. Solidarity marches, reactions from celebrities and politicians, as well as Charlie Hebdo depicting the Prophet Muhammad on its first cover since the tragedy, keeps the incidents front page material. What was noticeably absent from the news cycle was reporting on the devastating violence in Nigeria.

Amnesty International reports that terrorist group Boko Haram begun terrorizing Baga and surrounding towns on January 3. It is estimated that up to two thousand people have been killed in what is being called Boko Haram’s deadliest attack. According to CNN, bodies were strewn around the area as late as the following Monday as survivors were too fearful to collect the dead. On January 11, an explosive attached to a young girl was detonated  in the largest market in city of Maiduguri killing at least twenty people and injuring up to fifty-one.

Raids and bomb attacks by Boko Haram have been increasing in frequency and severity since 2010, yet these attacks rarely make international headlines. Why does terror in France receive prominent coverage in America, while tragedy in Nigeria does not? The answer is complicated and a solution, even more so.

Many place blame on the inaction and almost complete silence of Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, who has been in office since 2010. President Jonathan has given campaign speeches for re-election and was filmed enjoying the festivities of his adopted daughter’s wedding since the Baga Massacre, but has yet to speak directly in response to it. The president did promise in a Jan. 12 speech in Osogbo, Nigeria, that if “re-elected, terror will be minimal,” but did not outline any concise plan on how that would be achieved. Rather, he offered “this terrorism cannot last forever.”

Dr. Rhuks Ako, of University of Hull in Yorkshire, UK–who studies environmental justice, minority rights, environmental human rights and public participation law in Africa–blames the escalating terror and lack of media coverage on Jonathan’s inaction. “Nigeria’s government has to take some responsibility. Put rather crudely,” Dr. Ako continued, “the deceased are ‘nobodies’ in the eyes of the state. Barely a year ago, when the ‘girls’ were kidnapped, not only did it not make the headline news for days, the president did not, for a long time, meet with the parents until the pressure became unbearable.”

Terrorism Theorist and Northeastern University professor Max Abrahms had even harsher words. “Goodluck Jonathan is a terrible national leader. He doesn’t seem to care about the people in the north.” Abrahms described Jonathan’s handling of terror in Northern Nigeria as inactive and extraordinarily feckless. “Goodluck Jonathan is going around telling people he has everything under control in order to try to reassure the population that he’s a competent leader and the consequences of that is the world is more ignorant of the conflict than it should be.”

Abrahms and Ako differ on the role the incoming February presidential election impacts both Nigerian and international coverage of Boko Haram’s violence. “I am not sure that the government considers the way they deal with the threats as integral to political survival,” said Ako. “Unfortunately, such questions are not the main focus of elections in Nigeria.” The professor explained that the country’s  politics were more reliant on  “bread-and-butter” issues, such as promises of electricity, good roads, potable water and more rural areas–cash for votes. Abrahms believes even more cynically that the Jonathan administration’s inaction on Boko Haram made is far more likely for him to win re-election.

“Northers are not going to vote for him,” said Abrahms. “If they’re less inclined to go and they were the ones that were going to support alternative candidates, then violence could indirectly increase his chances of winning.”

Nigeria is not a country without a robust media infrastructure. Kelly McBride, vice president of academic programs at the Poynter Institute, explains “Nigeria is not a media poor country, and has a ton of radio and television stations.” What is very different from countries with similar resources is the interference of the military and the constant threat of terrorist violence. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 70 percent of murdered Nigerian journalists covered politics and 30 percent covered human rights.

Control of media narratives has caused Nigerian military to go as far as detaining journalists who cover them in ways deemed unfavorable. In August, Peter Nkanga, the Committee to Protect Journalists West Africa representative, criticized the government after two managers of an independent Nigerian paper were detained by the military and threatened with sanctions if they did not retract a story. While the managers were released, the military offered a statement saying, failure by the paper to retract the story would result in “attract sanctions.” The military also demanded that reporters of the paper contact the military for any story on the army or national security. Difficulty reporting on terrorism domestically makes the task of reporting those incidents internationally all the more daunting.

Boko Haram tactics also affect its coverage. the targets of the attacks are very localized to Nigeria, contrasted to the tactics of MEND that targeted international targets and oil interests. For many, the idea of a terrorist attack is an event that happens suddenly and randomly on a precise target. The attacks in France are in accordance with the conventional understanding of terrorism. The raids and bombings in Nigeria are happening, according to Abrahms, “weekly, if not daily.” As a result of their frequency “people stop thinking of it as terrorism and they start thinking of it as a civil way or an insurgency.” The targets of Boko Haram are also more remote compared to the densely populated Paris that had video and images almost instantly. Despite the staggering scale of tragedy which has displaced over a million people, there is no footage of the massacre. Perhaps if the media was able to show video of villagers being cut down cruelly as they begged for their lives those images would propel the story to the international front page.

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