This blog post is a summary of key findings from research published by the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism as part of wider project on mitigating the impact of media reporting on terrorism, funded by the European Commission’s DG DEVCO.
The 2014 kidnapping of 276 female students by Boko Haram from the Government Girls Secondary School, Chibok, Borno State, Nigeria, sparked a global campaign aiming to ensure their rescue. The success of this online campaign – and the government’s largely adverse reaction to it – illustrate some of the challenges of (social) media reporting on the highly politicised issue of terrorism.
Shortly after the Chibok schoolgirls were kidnapped, Oby Ezekwesili, former vice president of the World Bank for Africa, gave an emotional speech in which she demanded that the Nigerian government should ‘bring back our girls’. The phrase stuck among social media influencers in Nigeria—especially, on Twitter. Sensing an opportunity to use the momentum and platform to reach global audience, Ezekwesili teamed up with other rights activists to form the #BringBackOurGirls group. Soon after, millions of Nigerians at home and abroad, and others around the world, took to the streets and social media platforms with banners and posters reading ‘Bring Back Our Girls’. One important finding from the research was that the #BringBackOurGirls global media campaign was an indication that, to a great extent, the international media set the agenda for Nigerian media in terms of reporting terrorism. This trend continues to shape Nigeria’s media landscape. By the end of 2014, #BringBackOurGirls was one of the most used hashtags on social media and was — perhaps still is — the most intense social media campaign to come out of Nigeria.
However, it was also widely believed that crisis communication responses by the Nigerian government shortly after the Chibok girls were kidnapped was poor. The #BringBackOurGirls campaign’s constant and consistent demand for the release of the Chibok girls and others in Boko Haram captivity irritated the government of the day because it exposed its response to the kidnapping to international scrutiny. Having come to power partly on the support of groups such as the #BringBackOurGirls with a promise to rescue the girls, the government began a clampdown on the group’s activities – such as banning protests and arresting prominent protest leaders – once it was unable to fulfil the promise of securing the release of all the girls. Effectively, the movement was a victim of its own success; its online reach and ability to transition its campaign from social media to the streets eventually prompted a political backlash that deeply delegitimised and undermined the movement’s activities.
Even now, the Nigerian government continues to view the activities of the #BringBackOurGirls campaign as a threat rather than a call for collective responsibility. Perhaps as a result, there is still mutual mistrust between government communicators and Nigerian journalists reporting on terrorism.
Contextually, the media ownership landscape in Nigeria is deeply rooted in ethnic, political, and religious contexts and disparities. The coverage during and in the aftermath of the Chibok girls’ kidnapping exposed how ownership patterns often affect media coverage in the country. Reporting was hindered further by a sharp difference in content, and the use of language and style between the ‘Lagos corridor’ (in the south of the country) and ‘Kaduna corridor’ (in the north) media houses. Additional challenges to reporting are posed by the lack of benchmark editorial policies and codes of ethics in reporting on terrorism in digital media and print.
The research also showed that many of the challenges faced by Nigerian journalists reporting terrorism also stem from poor welfare, inadequate capacity and training, poor military-media relations, lack of post-incident access to areas attacked by terrorists, and corruption. We, therefore, strongly recommend that constructive engagement be initiated between the government of Nigeria and media regulators, owners, and workers in order to review and revitalise codes of ethics and codes of professional conduct and practice, especially for reporting on terrorism and violent extremism. Journalists require regular capacity development, especially in such areas as countering violent extremism, counter-terrorism, and conflict-sensitive reporting, which still have very few research resources in Nigeria. To increase mutual trust and confidence between the media and government, there is the need to deliver a freer, more accurate, and more balanced flow of information between the Nigerian government and the Nigerian people.
It was unanimously agreed by respondents that reporting on terrorism has improved since Chibok. Television has shown the most noticeable improvement in terms of content, while print media too has improved, significantly de-emphasising terrorist propaganda. However, most respondents reported fear that the line between responsible reporting and the responsibility to report terrorism-related news remains blurred. Even so, the #BringBackOurGirls campaign changed Nigeria’s media ecosystem and directly impacted citizens’ demand for action, changed perceptions of Boko Haram, and provided lessons in rescue operations and post-incident communication responses to terrorist activities.
Kayode Adebiyi has educational background in Linguistics and English, but much of his 13-year post-graduate education work experience has been in media and communications research. He was a correspondent on the editorial board of Leadership Newspapers, an influential print media house in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital. He is also vastly experienced in data collection and coordinating communication for behavioural change and grassroots intervention. Kayode has been on various research and development projects in diverse capacities, including as National Expert on Strategic Communications in the European Union Support to Help Strengthen Nigeria’s National Capacity to Respond to Evolving Security Challenges (EUTANS), assisted Countering Violent Extremism Programme for Nigeria and as Project Communication Coordinator for the NSRP/British Council funded Positive Voices Campaign Project. In 2017, he returned to the newsroom at the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN), where he presently works as a Senior Correspondent.