The Media’s Dangerous Games, By Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani
Depending on which Nigerian publication you come across, you could either learn that my chronological age is 27 or 29. For whatever reason, some journalists are determined to keep me below 30 years old. I remain grateful to them. However, this irreverence for fact-checking sometimes crosses over to the absurd. It becomes spiteful and immoral. Many Nigerian news organisations are regularly getting away with passing off malicious fiction as fact.
Writing in his autobiography, The Accidental Public Servant, opposition politician, Nasir El-Rufai, described an incident which took place back when he was the Federal Capital Territory minister:
“…I came into my office and saw something that looked like a small tortoise on my seat. This was supposed to be some voodoo curse meant to scare me. I do not know how it got there; I just removed it, settled down and started working on the files on the desk. The very next day, one Nigeria newspaper, the Daily Times, had a story about how I came into my office, saw a tortoise, and collapsed, and had been flown out abroad in a coma…My CSO (Chief Security Officer) wanted (the reporter) arrested, but I did not see any sense in that.”
Another Nigerian politician has an even more disturbing story to tell. Olisa Metuh, the ruling PDP’s spokesman, was abroad a few years ago when he read the online version of a story about himself: How he had stormed his son’s school with four jeep-loads of armed security personnel, ordered the vice principal beaten up, then locked the man in his car boot and driven off—all because the school authorities seized his son’s mobile phone.
Metuh told me that he initially considered the story amusing. For starters, he never goes around with armed personnel. Plus he was sure that someone would soon notice that the reporter had got one basic fact wrong: His son was not enrolled at the school mentioned in the article.
“My children used to be students there,” he said, “but I took them away and left the Board of Trustees after one of the school’s buildings collapsed.”
Metuh points out the absence of any police report from the school as further evidence of the story’s falsehood. In his version of events, his son had gone to see a cousin at the school during visiting day, when a teacher, possibly mistaking him for one of the students, seized the boy’s mobile phone. Apparently, students were not permitted to be in possession of such gadgets. Metuh then went to meet the school’s vice principal to explain the situation. In the process, “I said some unprintable things,” the PDP spokesperson admitted. Afterwards, he left the vice principal’s office and drove off. Without beating up anyone. Without throwing anyone into his car boot. Without any armed personnel escort. Three weeks later, the embellished story appeared.
Like El-Rufai, Metuh decided not to pursue the matter. His church pastor advised him to ignore the story, which Metuh believed was part of a smear campaign by his political enemies in Anambra State who were affiliated to the school. But the Boko Haram terrorists were not as dismissive when one of their video press releases was outlandishly distorted by a number of local media in April 2012. The group bombed two newspaper offices.
While claiming responsibility for the carnage, a Boko Haram spokesperson said: “…Each time we say something, it is either changed or downplayed…I challenge every Nigerian to watch that video again. There is no place our imam either said he will crush President Jonathan or issued an ultimatum to the government in Nigeria; but nearly all papers carried very wrong and mischievous headlines.”
Not all Nigerians who suffer injury at the hands of our country’s media go around throwing bombs in fury. And so, the press keep getting away with it. Sponsored falsehoods now appear to be a regular weapon against those with whom one has an axe to grind. There seems to be a gang of unscrupulous journalists on standby to publish anything that will either sell papers or drive traffic to their websites, and perhaps for a fee.
Even when a headline is eventually unveiled as untruth, the intended damage may have already been entrenched. As the Igbo proverb notes: If it was announced when the market was full that a certain person stole, and later on when the market was dispersing it was announced that he actually did not steal, who would go and inform those who had left the market before the second announcement was made? Recently, many Nigerian publications reported that the wife of popular Nigerian pastor, Chris Oyakhilome, was divorcing him as a result of adultery. Following threats by Oyakhilome’s lawyers, some newspapers recanted. But how many members of the public who read the original sensational headlines later got to see the actual contents of the divorce papers when they were eventually published? How many would have learnt that there had been no single mention of adultery in the documents?
Nigerians need more protection from our country’s press. We cannot keep leaving the matter to God. It may be politicians, public officials and pastors today; tomorrow, the media may aim their lies at you. A special judicial process may need to be put in place to expedite cases of libel, so that litigants are not put off by the usual tortuous court system.
Undoubtedly, the media should be able to do their work without fear of retribution, but freedom of the press requires responsibility and due diligence. The same demands for accountability that Nigerians have begun to make of our government officials must be extended to our country’s media.
Adaobi Tricia Obinne Nwaubani, novelist, essayist and journalist lives and writes from Abuja. Her debut novel, I Do Not Come to you by Chance, won the 2010 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book