In Nigeria’s history, we had and are still witnessing instances of burglary, car theft, armed robbery, 419 and kidnapping. But none of these criminal acts has elicited massive media and national attention like the terrorists' activities currently facing the country and none is as pernicious as terrorism. The long term effects on the society are as destructive as the terrorists themselves as they involve dangerous erosion of some moral boundaries and have the potency to be accepted as a bargaining power for negotiation or a justifiable means of political or religious conflict. It has the tendency to simplify, justify and explain rather than condemned terrorism in all its ramifications. Hence, the explanation that terrorism in Nigeria is caused by poverty, unemployment, acrimonious political competition occasioned by bad leadership. Whatever are the causes; terrorism is reprehensible and therefore is condemnable.
The apparent insecurity in Borno state and some states of the North Eastern part of Nigeria occasioned by the activities of Boko Haram necessitated the establishment of the Joint Task Force codenamed JTF Operation Restore Order 1 in June 2011. The mandate of the Task Force is to restore law and order in the North Eastern parts of Nigeria and Borno state in particular.
In the course of actualizing its mandate, the JTF troops have since inception been operating in the most difficult situation and terrain accentuated by the endemic nature of the operation. Despite the obvious challenges of urban/asymmetric warfare, the JTF has succeeded in restoring and maintaining law and order in Borno state. The successes notwithstanding, there are concerted efforts including damaging and negative press propaganda by the Boko Haram terrorists, their financiers and sympathizers to smear the image of the JTF, so as to discourage or distract it from actualizing its mandate. This is not surprising given the fact that terrorism thrives on publicity and forceful propaganda to attract attention, court sympathy and use as a tool for political negotiation.
It is apparent that publicity is the oxygen of terrorism and that modern terrorists also employ media terrorism to oil their dastard act. It makes no sense unless it is conspicuous in that targets are selected for maximum propaganda and publicity value. For instance, the bombing of United Nations Office in Abuja, the January 2012 coordinated attacks in Kano, Kaduna Easter bombing, the Potiskum cattle market incident, the bombing of This Day and The Sun Newspapers Offices in Abuja and Kaduna and, the massacre of 9 construction workers and recently, the assassination of a respected elder statesman Maj Gen Muhammadu Shuwa in Maiduguri. Thus, to carry out a particular operation without getting any publicity out of it would be wasteful to a terrorist course.
Terrorism acts are acts intended to create fear or chaos among the people. The spread of public terror, fear and feeling of chaos depends largely on the images and messages being carried by media reports about the terrorist acts and threats. The omnipresence of mass media at global level frequently multiply these effects out of proportion. This is more so because terrorists have learned how to use information technology in order to disseminate their own audiovisual recordings, electronic messages or web sites on the internet to serve their goals.
Terrorists employ whatever means possible to sway public opinion toward their cause. Recently, the preponderance of criticisms against the JTF operations in Borno state and the desperation to manipulate images and post on the social media is a calculated attempt to smear the image of the JTF. Thus, the permanent presence of acts of terrorism in the media in daily life and their global reach has increased the need for re-think about the roles of the media (social media inclusive) in the context of terrorism.
Since terrorism thrives on publicity, it follows that the crucial roles of the media in fighting terrorism should start from the media industry and professionals themselves. Thus, there is need for the media to embark on self regulation in order not to play into the hands of terrorists. The media should be able to avoid over sensationalism of reports on terrorism so as not to offer terrorists a platform of undue and undeserved publicity since they do society no good but rather harbinger of pains, blood, death and sorrow. The relevant arms of security agencies should periodically organize workshops for media professionals aimed at increasing awareness of the sensitive nature of media report on terrorism and to avoid contributing to the aims of terrorists through their report by in some cases, unknowingly add to the fear of the members of the public.
The media ought to understand that refraining from disseminating any picture, image or stories of terrorist acts which often contribute to the negative effect of the acts on the people, is for all intent and purpose, a noble act. Therefore, there is need for relevant arms of government to prepare under the guidance and in cooperation with media professionals and qualified security agencies a handbook for journalist reporting about terrorist acts and violence. Reading through some news and opinion articles from some national dailies often makes one presume a sinister motives of such piece and the authors.
The tendency to aggravate the already tensed situation is very obvious in such articles and news reports, hence, there is need for the media to avoid exacerbating societal tensions through their reports. News, comments, images and hates speech capable of widening divisive tendencies, threaten national security, public safety or economic well being of a state, should be avoided or restricted.
It is pertinent to draw the attention of the public and to also remind the media that images are been exploited in an increasing number of ways to enhance their impact; social media has created what Andrew Keen referred to as ‘The Cult of the Amateur” - anyone could become a journalist in his or her own way. The media is obviously being exploited, so also is the authenticity, reliability and motives of sources. Images had become raw materials and terrorists had become producers. Professional journalists had no control over the situation, given that anyone could publish images and text on the internet. Social media presents challenges and the media faces a complicated task to strike the right balance between their duty to inform the public and the danger of becoming tools in the hands of terrorists.
They have to make painful choices involving their own conscience with regard to objectivity, decency and respect of the dignity of victims of the terrorist acts and the demand of media market competition. They must understand the narrow distinction between the public’s right to know and an efficient fight against terrorism. The media should be very careful in broadcasting, printing and in distributing materials gathered outside their professional means which have not been further authenticated.
Media practitioners should be wary while using produced materials by the terrorists which are mostly aimed at public terror to serve terrorists goals. History has shown that sometimes, the video recorded by the terrorists were for propaganda and a sure instrument for negotiations with the government for their freedom. As terrorist activities are increasing, it presents new challenges to the media industry and law enforcement agencies; the challenges of particularly avoiding hurting privacy, human dignity especially of the victim and separation of an individual attack from ideological as well as criminal context. It is not uncommon in Nigeria to attribute routine armed robbery incidents to terrorists’ acts. Many terrorists’ activities are based on normal criminal behavior than on political or religious motive. Most attacks serve goals other than to realize religious or political objectives; they are clearly about money, attention, status and other advantages. That formed the basis why in many countries acts of terrorism are legally distinguished from criminal acts done for other purposes. For the media to effectively perform its roles, personal security and situation awareness is indispensable.
To be able to perform tasks required to contain terrorism, media practitioners must be alive and healthy. They must extricate themselves from the dangers of terrorism for them to be able to write and report news, be the watchdog of the security agencies and sensitize the public. Personal security is a must for self survival! Recently, the threat of harm to reporters, their families and media organizations has been an increasing concern for the security agencies. As representative of the free flow of information, a very important group for the sustenance of democracy and as special risk group journalists deserves the special appreciation and protection of the whole of society. Journalists and their families are often threatened, killed and kidnapped. It is imperative the state and all relevant security agencies should take serious interest and measures to ensure the security of media practitioners in this country. At the individual level, reporters in or out of the field, must be vigilant and dogged to ethically shoulder their noble responsibilities in spite of incessant threats. I salute the courage of all those who practiced their profession with dedication especially in dangerous situations.
Lt. Col. Sagir Musa is the spokesman of the Joint Task Force in Maiduguri
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of SaharaReporters