By Abubakar A. Bukar
A couple of weeks back, one of the Nigerian conventional newspapers, Independent, posted a story on its website alleging that Nigerian minister of communication, Isa Pantami, is suspected of having a close tie with the slain Boko Haram leader hence placed on United States’ terrorism watch list. The news, as expected, went viral particularly on social media platforms, attracting mixed reactions much of which suspecting the veracity of the claim.
Exasperating as it was to his admirers, the story is ordinarily such that could jerk any Nigerian out of a slumber, cognizant of the pervading insecurity in the country, the lived realities in the North and the historical trajectory of Boko Haram conflict.
With a “corroborative” video, Newswire, an online news site, republished the story in question. In the storm of emotions and virtual commotions, Peoples Gazette lurched in with the following headline: We are all happy whenever unbelievers are being killed – Minister Pantami. There obviously appears to be a coordinated attempt at decapitating the minister reputationally, as the succession and interconnection suggest. But then a review – actually a simple reread – of the Independent’s story reveals some loopholes. First, the source, which every student of journalism is inspired to value as the meat and potatoes of their story. At the mention of America monitoring terrorism, some agencies quickly smack your nostril – is it the popular CIA? Or FBI? Or who, and how credible? Yes, that “who” is the No. 1 determinant in news gathering formula. Masscomm 101. And of course Nigerians can be quick in remembering those intelligence agencies as their compatriots engaging in cybercrimes are the regular subject of especially the latter. “Sadly”, none. Nonexistent sources, officially. A triumph of goof over scoop. End of discussion.
Secondly, the other story insinuating minister’s doctrinal sadism should have attempted answering the following the questions if at all its concern is journalistic principle of objectivity and fairness: when was the statement made? In what context? And why is it reactivated? Well, another essential attribute of fake news is that content may not necessarily be an outright fabrication (as is the case with the Independent news article), it can be a misleadingly de-contextualised truth (as seems to be in the case of Peoples Gazette). The reader might remember how Professor Abubakar Rasheed, the NUC boss, was the victim of this kind of fake news when his picture attending his son’s PhD graduation ceremony in the United Kingdom in 2014 re-emerged in 2020, during ASUU’s long strike. It was represented to portray him and the Nigerian elite as generally insensitive to the plight of public universities and the children of the masses as a whole.
In a clime of fairness, a brief background checks would have scuttled that scoop. The video attached to Newswire’s version is evidential enough to cast doubt as regards the veracity of the story. Then you begin to wonder whether that was borne out of ignorance, laziness or mischief. Intuitively, one felt the latter. To those following, however remotely, the historical trajectory of Boko Haram – from evolution, to metamorphosis and seeming eclipse – linking Pantami with it is a bizarre juxtaposition. What literary students might have called an oxymoron.
I am not holding any brief for the Sheikh Minister – if at all he needs one. But in the interest of fairness, records need to be set straight. The closest I have come to the Minister was when I spotted him twice from afar; both at IVC gatherings in 2006 and 2007 at Wudil and Bauchi respectively. But someone close to him had, years back, told me how the Sheikh was literally living with the fear of assassination at the peak of Boko Haram’s stiffening violence. And, as recently as February 2020, Shekau has reiterated a threat on that note. Actually some even felt Pantami’s PhD undertaking then was a refuge seeking of some sort. Boko Haram kingpin’s obsession with the Sheikh is obviously understandable. No scholar in Nigeria’s clerical establishment has, to my knowledge, proven to be an ideological frustration and stumbling block to the group’s mission.
On a general note, this controversy only raises a fresh concern about the preponderance of fake news in Nigerian, nay global, public sphere, and what to do about it.
My conclusion therefore is that the Independent story and all other following in the step must have been planted by vested interests on whose toes the minister might have stepped. On how far such “interests” – amorphous as they may be – could go in settling a score one needs not go far from SLS to decipher. Hon. Farouk Lawan of the Otedola infamy has tasted the sting. And Elrufai too – as a minister of the Federal Capital Territory. In his Accidental Public Servant, he relates on how such “interest” group/individuals beguiled media into such blackmail. A small tortoise, he alleged, was one day put on his office’s seat, which he removed and proceeded with the day’s business. The following day a Nigerian newspaper, Daily Times, landed with a story claiming that upon seeing the tortoise the Minister fell down lifeless and was flown abroad for medical attention.
Fake news sells. Ask the Macedonian teenagers about their exploits around Trump’s election times. Despite their aura of credibility, the mainstream media in Nigeria are increasingly becoming vulnerable to it, unfortunately. It is an open secret that the media industry as a whole, be it in Nigeria or elsewhere, is badly hit economically by events beyond its control. The internet has, for instance, made news/opinion content readily available so much so that none seems to hanker for copies from newsstand. And with both public and private sectors recuperating from a global pandemic, advertising revenue seems also to be a utopia. Thus adding salt to the injurious fall of hard copy patronage. Downsizing, pay cut and pay delays for employees, and the heightening desperation for “product differentiation” are the new normal in particularly the media industry. To survive, only few could bear the brunt of sticking religiously to the golden ethical principles. Hence the obvious struggle to reclaim the monopoly of breaking news from social media.
The phenomenon of fake news is so worrisome and pervasive that it recently spurred our Nobel Laureate to aver that it is likely to be the trigger for World War III. Poor Soyinka, besides being a victim he is probably aware that false and fabricated contents have caused countries to war in the past. United States was first in North Vietnam using that as an alibi. The humanitarian disaster wreaked by that encounter is better imagined. In fact Chomsky tells us that the effects of chemical weapons used by the US on North Vietnamese is still felt, evident on both humans and animals.
What to do to curb the rising tide of the phenomenon in question is largely a matter of policy environment. Riding chiefly on the crest of emotion, we first have to acknowledge that it is a viable weapon for myriad of interests – from politicians to conflict merchants; for social media users and mainstream media, among several others. Citizens’ knowledge about it and its nuances need to be raised so as to be able to identify and counter it effectively by themselves. There is a variety of fake news that usually (seeks to) harm and the one that does not – satire/parody vis a vis fabrication, for example. Different strokes for different folks. Here lies the relevance of regulation – notwithstanding what bogus free speech fundamentalists may argue to the contrary.
Moreover, what some newspapers do – Premium Times with its fact checking unit, Thisday’s suspension of its editors for the inability to gatekeep the fake news on Bishop Oyedepo’s US visa saga are indeed commendable. So also Daily Trust’s No, Thanks policy and fact-checking efforts (most recently on fake Fulani herdsmen’s pictures in other newspapers). All these are efforts at rejuvenating ethical sanity in the industry. But what does the state in augment this to cultivate an informed rather than deformed citizenry informationally? What subsidy thus? We’ve seen its agency, NBC, wielding a menacing stick on erring broadcasters. Where is the corresponding carrot?
Again, the issue of carrot raises another ethical question. Bringing further to light the financial quagmire in which media industry is presently entangled, Premium Times solicits for donations from its readers a la UK’s Guardian. Now if a certain Dangote doles some dollars into its coffers as donation, how sure will the reader be that news about the person or his organisation can stick to the professional philosophy of neutrality?
Bukar is of the department of Mass Communication, ABU, Zaria, and can be reached via email@example.com