The Media and Public Perception in a Season of Insecurity

Shortly before I left Abuja this morning, I got a call from a friend in Lagos and in the course of our discussion, I mentioned it in passing that I was coming to Kaduna for this conference. “You mean you are going to Kaduna?,” he asked.

I replied in the affirmative, wondering what the big deal was about Kaduna. Then he told me that he would not even venture to come into Abuja. As far as he and indeed many people in Lagos are concerned, I am right now within the territory of the Federal Republic of Boko Haram, and we are even talking of Kaduna, not Damaturu or Maiduguri. Such is the nature of the challenge we face in our country today and some of it actually boils down to perception which may be far from reality yet these are the things that now define us as a people.

I thank the organizers of this event for giving me the opportunity to share my thoughts on this most important topic: “The Role of the Media in Shaping Public Perception on Pastoralists, Insecurity, Peace Building and Conflict Resolution." I say important because it has been empirically established that the media play a big role in what people think about, how people think, how people behave and how they perceive reality. For that reason, the media is more than a constituency; it is a channel to many other critical constituencies.

We are at a period in our history when the nation is facing a new form of security challenge that involves the planting of Improvised Explosive Devices on neighbourhood roads; the use of rocket launchers and other high grade weapons by armed gangs. We are at a period when vehicles, rigged with deadly explosives, are rammed into media houses, television viewing centers and places of worship. We are at a period when indoctrinated young men strap explosives on their bodies to blow themselves up in gatherings of men, women and innocent children just to pursue the destructive objective of an extremist group. Security wise, our country is today challenged on many fronts and the manifestations of the threat include the violent encounters between farmers and pastoralists across the country; the intermittent eruptions over religion as well as the perennial settler-indigene sectarian violence.

Given the foregoing, a conference like this could not have come at a better time. It is therefore my hope that our society will benefit greatly from the ongoing conversation. It is also my hope that this convergence will generate the relevant synergy to enlighten and leverage genuine efforts that will aid the resolution of many of the crises that are now tearing apart the fabrics of our society.

In a recent interview, Mr. Mohammed Bello Tukur, the National Legal Adviser of Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria (MACBAN) who also doubles as the Acting Secretary General of Confederation of Traditional Herders Organization in Africa (CORET) spoke about what he considers the challenges of those of them who are active in the livestock sector and one major problem he identified is that of media perception. However, he was generous to admit that it is not an issue that is peculiar to Nigeria alone. Let me quote from what he said in the interview. “In East Africa they face the same kind of challenges. The media view their mode of production as backward and outdated, the people who are into the production as uncivilized, as people who are violent, as people who are prone to attacking others for no reason without viewing what are the underlying causes that really bring about these issues of conflict. Particularly at the Miyetti Allah level, and the board of trustees, we have always considered farmers and pastoralists as cousins in terms of trade. But with time, factors ordinarily that shouldn’t have been there, have infiltrated into the relationship. The issues are developmental challenges like the issues of damages to crop or farming along cattle routes or the issues of access to pasture or access to market, these are the kind of things that Pastoralist and Farmers face and they have been there as old as history itself. If you look at what happened in the Bible between Cain and Abel, it is part of the things that you have between farmers and pastoralists. So the media perception has not been good. The latest I heard was pastoralists using helicopters to attack people or pastoralists damaging oil rigs in Bayelsa. People create myths and sensationalize things that are not even there and gloss over the real things.”

I have reflected a lot about what Mr Tukur said not only because it is the theme of this conference but also because it is an issue which I can easily relate with. I come from Elesinmeta, a village in Kwara State. About a hundred metres from my village is a Fulani settlement called Gaa Okanla. I grew up to meet the settlement and my uncle who is his late eighties in age also told me last week that the settlement had been there before he was born. It was founded by a nomadic Fulani man called Anfani who reportedly mixed freely with our people. His first son was named Okanla and I grew up to know him as Baba Okanla with some of his children, especially Baba and Musa as my contemporaries and friends even till today. So in my village, we have had five generations of Fulani men who have lived in harmony with our people.

However, three years ago, people in my village who happen to be farmers were having the usual problem with Fulani herdsmen of the more nomadic variant in the course of which there were violent clashes. In the bid to find a solution to the problem, representatives of the Emir of Ilorin, His Royal Highness, Alhaji Sulu Gambari had to intervene. After series of meetings, they arrived at a reasonable formula which is working till today: If anybody reports that cows entered and damaged his crops and the farmer did not meet the particular herds on the farm, the entire Fulani community living within that ward would be responsible for paying for the damage crops. Since then the clashes have stopped in our area. That is what community efforts can achieve but I am also sure this happened because my village is far removed from media spotlight since the reportage of such interactions can also generate its own tension that could make a peaceful resolution difficult.

Mr Chairman, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, I share that story to illustrate the fact that this is an issue to which I am familiar even though five key terms drive the treatment of this presentation. They would naturally define its content and thrust. These include: Role of the Media, Public Perception, Pastoralists, Insecurity, Peace Building/ Crisis Resolution. Along the line, how these five key terms interface and interact will naturally shape the structure and meaning of this presentation.

Examining the media as an institution requires an understanding of what constitutes the sector. Clearly, the media consists of something beyond the specific outlets that deliver news and information. It is so amorphous that it encompasses everything from the universities that train future journalists to the courts that protect their rights. In the broadest sense, the media embraces the television and film entertainment industries, a vast array of regularly published printed material, and even public relations and advertising.

The "press" is supposed to be a most serious member of that family, focusing on real life instead of fantasy and serving the widest possible audience. A good generic term for the press in the electronic age is "news media." The emphasis in this definition is on content, not technology or delivery system, because the press can be found these days on the Internet, the fax lines, or the airwaves. But I want to crave an indulgence: The terms "media" and "press" will be used interchangeably in this presentation, being contextually coterminous.

Moving forward, this social phenomenon known as public perception can be seen as the difference between an absolute truth based on facts and a virtual truth shaped by popular opinion, reputation or even prejudices. To underscore this point, let us look at the challenge of the pastoralists.

Mr. Bature, a 57-year old man from Okari village in Nassarawa state drives the point home when he said: “Our cattle have no place to graze. Everywhere has been fenced-in by farm owners and land owners”. Bature’s lamentation captures the dilemma of Nigeria’s pastoralists or herdsmen. Every day, millions of such pastoralists like Bature are faced with not only the problem of poor access to grazing land for livestock but also with the anguish of insecurity, conflicts with farming communities, poor access to water, inadequate access to health and education among others.

This scenario has generated decades-old crisis between farmers and pastoralists in Nigeria. Yet, as the watchdogs of society, it is the media’s role to report such skirmishes when they occur. However, to effectively report this socio-economic crisis, it is important that the media understand some of the core challenges. Unfortunately, it is an issue for which most of us in the media have not taken time to study and for that reason, the reportage have also in most instances caused more harm than good.

In the normal cause of the day, pastoralists leading their animals to grazing lands and watering points, inevitably trespass on farmlands, damage and destroy crops. This leads to instant retaliation and quarrels which sometimes degenerate into large scale violence, loss of lives and property. Reporting such occurrences require sensitivity while analyzing same requires even more.

However, when professionalism takes flight in reporting crises, distortions flowing from political, ethnic or religious prejudices take centre stage. Unfortunately, this cannot be denied by media practitioners in covering the tension between farmers and pastoralists. But it does not end there.

Even as this event unfolds today, the dominant issue that is actively challenging our nation and political leadership is insecurity. The word ‘insecurity’ in Nigeria today largely automatically evokes images of suicide bombing, Boko Haram and general danger to limbs and lives. While this may be accurate, insecurity also goes beyond this.

It is important to note here that insecurity, especially internal insecurity is not a problem that is unique to Nigeria. The US, the UK and many other countries, face the challenges of insecurity within their borders on a daily basis. The difference between them and our country is how they manage the threats; how knowledgeable and prepared they are; how they deploy resources against the threats; how effective they are; and how patriotic and united their citizens are against such threats. But there is a flip side.

According to Akintokunbo Adejumo, the Founder and Global Coordinator of CHAMPIONS FOR NIGERIA, “More lives are lost in our country through road crashes (call it transport insecurity, if you want); diseases which could have been prevented if not for lack of commitment and care by our various governments (I will call this healthcare insecurity); infant mortality; ignorance, illiteracy and poverty.”

I am sure many of us can understand what Adejumo is saying and it is difficult to fault him. But that is not the issue today. Insecurity, as seen from what is playing out currently in our country is synonymous with fear and uncertainty. For Nigeria, terrorism is a largely uncharted terrain. Here, the media’s role in reporting and interpreting has also become a challenge. We shall return to this.

Peace Building and Conflict Resolution
The onset of human civilization brought to the fore the necessity of ending the rule of the jungle where the fittest and strongest ruled the roost. There simply had to be rules and laws to govern society and resolve disputes. Yet curiously, human nature breeds persecution of the weak by the strong - while advancement of the state itself has to do with shielding the weak from the repressive inclinations of the strong. The search for peace building and conflict resolution brought the law. But to date, perhaps due to the biology of man, crisis is an inherent part of society. This then gives a crucial role to peace building and conflict resolution.

According to that venerable Indian sage Mahatma Ghandi, “There is no way to Peace, Peace is the way.” The rising profile and complexities of conflict disorders within Nigeria require that there be increased focus on activities in peace building and conflict resolution. But those who seek political power in our country, at practically all levels, must also be prepared to lead the charge for peace.

In every country, it is the responsibility of the leadership to protect the political, social, and economic interests of the citizens. Leadership involves finding solutions to difficult problems, ensuring stability of the polity, and guiding the society to prosperity. But a large number of the political leaders of Nigeria today lack the vision, the passion, and the character to effectively deal with the security challenge confronting us. However, the purpose of this presentation is not to pass judgments but to enlighten; to light a candle in the darkness of national self-doubt and the media’s role in this process.

Although historians, social scientists and policy-makers rely on newspapers and the media every day, they seldom reflect on the nature of media or their transformations. The media serves this purpose, in many ways: through selection of topics, distribution of concerns, framing of issues, filtering of information, emphasis and tone, and by keeping debate within the bounds of acceptable premise. Localising these concerns, reporting security issues can benefit more from the old traditional role of the media.

Tracking back in history, since the 17th century, the role of the media as Fourth Estate and as a forum for public discussion and debate has been recognised. Today, despite the mass media’s propensity for sleaze, sensationalism and superficiality, the notion of the media as watchdog, as guardian of the public interest, and as a conduit between governors and the governed remains deeply ingrained. The reality, however, is that the media in new and restored democracies do not always live up to the ideal.

Sheila S. Coronel, Executive Director and one of the founders of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, adduces some reasons why this is so. "They are hobbled by stringent laws, monopolistic ownership, and sometimes, the threat of brute force. State controls are not the only constraints. Serious reporting is often difficult to sustain in competitive media markets that put a premium on the shallow and sensational. Moreover, the media are sometimes used as proxies in the battle between rival political groups, in the process sowing divisiveness rather than consensus, hate speech instead of sober debate, and suspicion rather than social trust. In these cases, the media contribute to public cynicism and democratic decay."

Still, in many fledgling democracies including Nigeria, the media have been able to assert their role in buttressing and deepening democracy. Investigative reporting which in some cases has led to the ouster of important personalities and posed a potent challenge to corrupt government, has made the media an effective and credible watchdog and boosted its credibility among the public. Investigative reporting has also helped accustom officials to an inquisitive press and helped build a culture of openness and disclosure that has made democratically elected governments more accountable. But the nature of the times we live in demand that the media be more vigorous in dealing with security threats.

In this presentation, it is important we share some hard truths. For a long time, the word ‘media’ has conjured an association with value-loaded words like ‘truth, fair-play, impartiality, objectivity and independence’. These value associations may have been relevant, meaningful and even correct in certain eras, in different geographies. In today’s time and age, the media as an institution has evolved as political and business entities with clearly-defined objectives and ownership. It is in this light that Noam Chomsky’s with alarming frankness, wrote way back in 1988, about what the media represents in the modern age.

According to Chomsky, “The mass media serves as a system for communicating messages and symbols to the general populace. It is their function to amuse, entertain, and inform, and to inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs and codes of behaviour that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society. In a world of concentrated wealth and major conflicts of class interest, to fulfill this role requires systematic propaganda… In this propaganda system, money and power are able to filter out the news fit to print, marginalize dissent, and allow the government and dominant private interests to get their messages across to the public…”

These are of course Chomsky’s viewpoints but they communicate a telling reality of contemporary media, even in Nigeria.

Mr Chairman, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, at a period when our nation is at a delicate intersection between Renewal and Reversal, especially with regards to the challenging security situation, there is need for some form of collaboration between the media and the security apparatus of the state. The problem, however, is that the people in charge of our security agencies have over the years developed an unhelpful posture that they have a monopoly of patriotism. In fact, they most often see journalists as unpatriotic because we refuse to buy into their warped idea that regime protection is the same as national security. But I must commend the current National Security Adviser (NSA), Col. Sambo Dasuki, who would rather engage with reporters than demonise them.
It is a productive approach that is most appropriate for a time like this. For instance, there is currently an intense contestation for power among the major geo-ethnic groups in the country with religion being thrown into the mix. Tensions arising from the projection of such interests by the media could be distracting so it is important for practitioners to moderate their views.
Today, there are growing apprehensions, in several quarters, of an impending national crisis. This fear, even if unduly hysterical, is fuelled by the incendiary nature of the subtle and not so subtle campaign for the 2015 general elections. Yet as it is typical, the current shouting match is not about programmes or ideals or for that matter, about the welfare of the people, it is about other primordial considerations and personal interests.
While we can argue that the oft-predicted breakup of Nigeria remains largely far-fetched given that what unites the Nigerian ruling elite (from both the North and South) far outweighs what divides them, the media should also be wary of the fact that when Nigerian politicians become desperate as many are becoming, they are usually very dangerous to the health of the larger society.
At a time like this therefore, the media should not yield their platforms to hate mongers whose polarizing rhetoric could only push our plural society towards its delicate fault-lines. Collectively, both the media and the government must begin to fashion out the requisite strategies necessary to overcome the human and institutional barriers that for decades have held the country back, with a focus on accountability and good governance. In this age of terror, we have to collaborate to chart a new course and embrace a more productive and cooperative form of engagement. It is possible.

Paper presented by Olusegun Adeniyi, Chair of THISDAY Editorial Board, at the International Conference on Security and Development Challenges in West and Central Africa held in Kaduna between June 22 and 24, 2014.

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