By Kadaria Ahmed
It has simply gotten out of hand. Journalists and now a global media organisation of repute, the BBC, which should know better, are becoming a tool for terrorists, even if unwittingly, by amplifying the faces, voices and stories of killers and marauders who are still operating with impunity across Nigeria.
The public interest argument seems to have been misunderstood, some may even say misrepresented, to enable sensationalist reporting that is very unlikely to be allowed on screens in the United Kingdom. By not upholding the same standards as they would uphold in the UK in their work in Nigeria, the BBC Africa Eye producers in their latest documentary titled The Bandit Warlords of Zamfara have provided a global platform to terrorists and can be accused of becoming an accomplice to terror in the name of reporting it.
When communications professor at the University of Toronto, Mahmoud Eid, coined the term “Terroredia”, in his book, Exchanging Terrorism Oxygen for Media Airwaves, Eid argues that there is now a “relationship between terrorists and media professionals in which acts of terrorism and media coverage are exchanged, influenced and fuelled by one another.” Since it was written seven years ago, it would appear the case Eid was trying to make is now quite self-evident, especially in Nigeria where, increasingly, propaganda videos and statements by terror groups as well as features on terror leaders are finding their way into mainstream media. We can now easily identify, for example, the faces of the major kingpins responsible for the widespread kidnappings and killings that are occurring on a daily basis in the northern part of Nigeria, no thanks to having their pictures and videos splashed all over the pages of newspapers and on our television screens almost as if they are Nollywood A-listers.
None of this has ‘helped’ our inept government, led by President Muhamadu Buhari, to find and arrest these blood-thirsty criminals.
The ‘pressure’ has also not stopped the administration from playing ostrich and finding an effective way of tackling insecurity. These are some of the public interest arguments put forward by those defending the featuring of predatory criminals on national and now international media platforms.
The arguments also include an assertion that hearing from terrorists helps us better understand the conflicts and, therefore, come up with solutions. Under the guise of public interest, this is the argument that BBC Africa Eye seems to be presenting to justify its decision to actively give copious screen time to self-confessed murderers and kidnappers, who are still actively involved in attacking communities, killing, kidnapping, pillaging and generally making life brutish and a living hell for the people of Nigeria’s northwestern state of Zamfara and beyond.
The two promotional clips released for the documentary, The Bandit Warlords of Zamfara, feature a marauder who should remain nameless here, confirming that he was part of those who raided Jangebe girls’ secondary school in the state, abducting over 300 students with the attendant horror these sorts of crimes normally entail, and releasing them after the payment of ransom. Evidently, the BBC Africa Eye team also had no problem utilising footage that appears to have been shot by these self-confessed criminals because this makes it into the second trailer. No media of repute would take this decision because it is generally understood that these sorts of videos are recorded by terrorists for one thing and one thing only: propaganda.
Reports of the documentary in national newspapers also quote one of the featured criminals boasting, in the documentary, that he only kills and doesn’t kidnap for ransom. This is the nature of the programme that the ‘reputable’ BBC Africa Eye is positioning as having a public interest imperative.
To be clear, the current state of insecurity and all that it entails is the fault of the Federal Government, led by President Buhari, and he must be held responsible for the carnage and state of anarchy engulfing the nation. That does not, however, mean irresponsible reporting by the media, which, after all, should champion the common man, should not be challenged.
If terrorists were killing and kidnapping British citizens, especially young children, the BBC would not enable interviews by the perpetrators, particularly if they were still roaming footloose and fancy-free, without an iota of remorse for their crimes and also carrying out many more. The trauma to the psyche of the British public would be unbearable, and the BBC would not be willing to pay that price, or risk the legal consequences sure to ensue.
In the era of the Irish Republican Army, the IRA, for example, the group didn’t make it onto the airwaves of the BBC. Indeed, reporting of the activities of the political party seen as the political arm of the IRA, Sein Fein, was heavily censored. Every time they spoke, the BBC deleted their voices and replaced them with those of actors, in obedience to British Government directives, which were put in place because the authorities believed publicity is like air for ‘terrorist’ groups, helping them to grow and thrive. And even though Sein Fein shared what many might argue is only an ideological position with the IRA, they were denied a presence on British airwaves in substantial ways.
Here in Nigeria, concerns about the impact the amplification of terrorists’ voices will have both on victims, their families and the public appear to be a secondary consideration to the BBC’s insistence on hearing from the bandits’ first-hand accounts and justification for their murderous activities.
There is no good argument that can justify the damage this is doing to the public that includes the schoolgirls in Jangebe, who can now in perpetuity watch the story of their abductions from the mouth of their abductors and relive the attendant trauma of that horrible crime.
For all of these schoolgirls, victims and their families, the BBC Africa Eye has confirmed their attackers’ invincibility. By documenting and handing over on a platter of gold one of the most respected media brands in the world to justify their actions, the BBC has iconised violent men leading marauding militias that are killing, abducting, maiming and leaving terror in their wake across large sways of Nigeria and who are clearly neither sorry for their crime nor looking to stop anytime soon.
It is hard to see how this will not contribute to deepening fear, mistrust, hopelessness and damage to the national psyche while undoubtedly helping with recruitment, all ingredients that actively contribute to successful outcomes for terror groups.
The public’s right to know is a sacrosanct tenet of journalists who are not and should not be in the job of censoring news. Finding the balance between that and ensuring media platforms do not provide the oxygen of publicity for terrorists and criminals is not easy, but it is at these difficult junctures that good journalism needs to stand its ground.
Recognising the importance of getting it right globally, experts, including those at the BBC, have taken the trouble to develop guidelines for reporting difficult stories, including stories of conflict and terrorism. The German Press Code, for example, says, “in reporting actual and threatened acts of violence, the Press should carefully weigh the public’s interest in information against the interest of victims and other people involved. It should report on such incidents in an independent and authentic way, but not allow itself to be made the tool of criminals. Nor should it undertake independent attempts to mediate between criminals and the police. THERE MUST BE NO INTERVIEWS WITH PERPETRATORS DURING ACTS OF VIOLENCE.’’
The German guidelines are unequivocal about not giving airtime to criminals involved in ongoing criminal activities and for very good reason. The BBC’s editorial guidelines are more watery, perhaps explaining why the BBC Africa Eye team is able to be cavalier about such a critical issue. But even these guidelines say “any proposal to approach an organization (or an individual member of an organization) designated a ‘terrorist group’ by the Home Secretary under the Terrorism Acts, and any proposal to approach individuals or organizations responsible for acts of terror, to participate in our output must be referred in advance to Director, Editorial Policy and Standard, and also any proposal to broadcast content made by perpetrators of a hijacking, kidnapping, hostage-taking or siege must be referred to a senior editorial figure.’’
The questions to answer, therefore, include: Did senior people in London at the BBC fully understand that they were authorizing the recording of terrorists who were still active and who, between them, have been responsible for the abduction, rape and killings of thousands of people, including schoolchildren?
There are other questions. When homeland terrorists committed the inconceivable crime of hacking British soldier Lee Rigby to death in May 2013, would the BBC have considered it in the public interest to interview these terrorists? To compare apples with apples, imagine that hero Rigby’s murderers were never held for their crimes, continued butchering people and collecting seven-figure ransoms, would the BBC dare to send reporters to film the murderers gloating about collecting ransom, and then hold Twitter Spaces and bask in views, clicks and likes?
The answer is NO. The BBC would never dare.
Why then is the BBC okay to fund, then publicise, the glorification of practicing murderers still butchering hundreds across Nigeria and the Chad Basin? How did this three-year disregard for African lives come about, and why is this acceptable?
By their own admission, the BBC Africa Eye producers claim their reporting occurred over three-years. This is clearly well before the crime against the schoolgirls in Jangebe occurred. These bandits and their factions commit cross-border crimes. Therefore, as a matter of urgent national and regional security, other questions, which the BBC must answer publicly, in the actual interest of the public, include:
1. In all these years it was conducting these ‘investigations’ of terrorists, did the BBC harbour information on potential criminals or or actual crimes that happened and did the BBC withhold this information from the relevant African security authorities?
2. After the particular interviews in which the murderers admit their collection of ransoms, and committing acts of kidnap, did the BBC hand over any of this footage to the authorities, and in a timely manner?
3. What footage and information has the BBC handed over to law enforcement, since the publication of this documentary?
In covering a subset of criminals for three years, the BBC has brazenly admitted that it was shooting criminals before, during and after the commission of dastardly crimes that have destroyed generations present and unborn.
The BBC Africa Eye documentaries series have been designed specifically for release on social media platforms (Facebook and YouTube). Given the programme’s track record of dubious editorial decisions and accusations of unethical behaviour, including by local reporters who worked with them, BBC managers in London should also explain if the decision to put this documentary out on social media was designed to ensure its producers are not held to the high global broadcast standards the BBC is known for and which are applicable to content broadcast within the UK.
When BBC Africa Eye did a story on drug addiction in Nigeria, there were attempts by a producer to sensationalize some of the reporting, to make it more gripping. On that occasion, he was working with a seasoned and brave journalist who pushed back. When they did a story on “Sex for Grades,” the two reporters responsible for the story ended up trading blame on social media over sex-for-byline allegations. Again, the producers didn’t come out smelling of roses. An investigative report by them on a popular talk show host in Nigeria who is revered by millions saw the journalist who did that reporting flee his home together with his family as a result of threats to his life. The BBC failed in its duty of care to this local journalist and in the end fellow journalists had to rally around to provide him with safe spaces.
In all, the team at BBC Africa Eye appears to be striving to do reporting that would be unacceptable in the UK for being unethical and transparently against public interest. The problem is they have capitalised on the justified anger of the people and the inconceivable failure of the government to once again resurrect the ugliest vestiges of colonialism, which one had hoped were long buried.
The unfolding anarchy and violence in Nigeria are serious matters, and every attempt must be made to keep the public informed. A documentary that investigates and examines government failures while centring victims and their families would have done that. Giving boastful, bloodthirsty criminals a global platform serves only two purposes. It provides free publicity for terror and enables the BBC to push viewership figures on social media.
It does nothing for public service. Even if it does not realise it, the BBC’s reputation for stellar public service journalism is being damaged.
Black lives, their humanity and national security, should matter more than clicks.
Hopefully, someone in London will take note.
•Ahmed was a senior producer at the BBC in London and is CEO at Radio Now 95.3FM, Lagos