The media is the public’s main source of information, and consequently has enormous control over public opinion about current issues. This summer, for example, the Israel-Palestine conflict received an abundance of public interest, and was made front page news in most mainstream papers. However, in the meantime, the crises faced by countries such as Syria and the Ukraine were largely overlooked. Whether the media’s prioritisation of certain global issues over others is an example of the media’s influence on public interest, or is simply a reflection of societal demand, is unclear. However, the correlation between the two is undeniable, and raises questions about media responsibility and bias.
A recent example of this media prioritisation can be seen in the evidently unequal media treatment of the two atrocities which took place in Paris and Nigeria. The world held its breath last week at the news of the militant killing spree, which took place at the offices of Charlie Hebdo and at a kosher supermarket in Paris. A 1.6 million strong crowd took the streets of the French capital to march and pay homage to the victims, and were joined by world leaders from Angela Merkel to Mahmoud Abbas. Across the world thousands of people held pencils and joined demonstrations to show their solidarity for the victims and in defence of the right to freedom of speech, from Trafalgar Square to the streets of Buenos Aires. But while the world’s attention was fixed on Paris another shocking massacre occurred in Baga in north-eastern Nigeria.
Imad Mesdoua, a political analyst at Africa Matters, tweeted about the Baga massacre, noting that there was, “no breaking news cycle, no live reports, no international outrage, no hashtags”. In fact, there has been so little information about the attacks that death tolls appear to range from the dozens to the tens of thousands. A local resident told Human Rights Watch that “No one stayed back to count bodies”, as everyone was trying to flee the town ahead of Boko Haram fighters. While we do not know exactly how many people were killed, we do know that among them were young children and a woman giving birth to her son. But where was the world’s media?
The problem begins with the response to the massacres in Africa. While Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan was one of the first leaders to express his condolences for the victims in Paris, he remained silent on the issue of Boko Haram’s most recent attack for a number of days. The president has been heavily criticised for his lack of action and support surrounding the Baga attacks, in what must be an incredibly troubling time for Nigeria. Some commenters have even gone as far as to accuse him of trying to score political points.
With a hotly contested General Election in Nigeria coming up in February, it has been claimed that Jonathan has stayed silent on the issue so as not to draw attention to the fact that his government has failed to deal with the threat of Boko Haram. In fact, South Africa’s Julius Malema (youth leader and federal law maker) has attacked the president’s hypocrisy saying at a press conference: ‘He is quick to release statement about the killing in Paris; but [doesn’t] say anything about the killings in his own country. That’s an irresponsible leadership.’’
While the President and his Cabinet do deserve criticism for their lack of support to the victims of Baga, the world’s media must surely receive some of this blame as well, since it cannot be disputed that coverage of Baga attacks has been overshadowed by that of Charlie Hebdo. Newspapers from across the political spectrum have painted the Paris attacks as an attack on the fundamental values of liberal democracy: freedom of speech and expression. However, according to Michael Jennings, a senior lecturer at the School of Oriental and Asian Studies in London, there is a tendency to view the Nigerian attacks as “part of the ongoing history of violence between communities”.
Boko Haram has been terrorising Nigeria since 2009, including kidnapping 279 schoolgirls from Chibok, who are still missing. At the time, a social media campaign entitled ‘Bring Back Our Girls’ gained support from the likes of Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton and dominated social media. But now, over a year after the kidnap, these girls are still missing and Boko Haram has gained power, to the extent where they effectively control the Borno state and pose a serious threat to the Nigerian government.
However, as we have seen from the failure of the ‘Bring Back Our Girls’ campaign, no amount of retweeting is going to stop Boko Haram and we should not look to Charlie Hebdo as an example of how to deal with the Baga attacks. After the devastating massacres in Paris, the most important thing was a strong demonstration of solidarity and support for the victims. The hashtag ‘Je suis Charlie’ and raising of pencils were symbolic gestures to show that extremists would not be able to triumph over the values of democracy. But symbolic gestures will not be enough to defeat Boko Haram.
The reason we find the Paris attack so disgusting is because we are seeing terrorism happening very close to home, in what is a democratic society. But in Nigeria, Boko Haram want to turn the country into an Islamist state. And this is why the group that has been terrorising Nigeria for more than five years requires strong political and military action to be eradicated, rather than a social media campaign. The British government have taken small steps to help the Nigerian government, by providing international aid packages to help the Nigerian government establish intelligence to track down Boko Haram and anticipate their actions. More awareness needs to be raised of not only the Baga attacks but also the threat of Boko Haram to Nigeria as a whole.
The massacres in Paris and in Nigeria are both equally horrific and important, for very different reasons. Whilst this makes it seem natural that there should be a media flurry over both events, it could be argued that we are pandering exactly to the militants’ original intentions. The attacks on Charlie Hebdo were a furiously deliberate statement – one which the media’s flapping of wings has spread over the world. Consequently the Kouachi brothers’ unambiguously expressed feelings have been circulated far more widely than Charlie Hebdo’s provocative cartoons ever have. This isn’t to say that incidents like this should be kept out of the public gaze; far from it, as ignorance can only lead to scaremongering and escalating prejudice. Nevertheless, it is unfortunate that due attention may catalyse the radicalisation of others.
Flore Bonaventura, a 26-year-old comedian who lives in Paris said: “The shots fired at Charlie, they made me feel the shots fired around the world. It made me realise that the world is tearing itself apart everywhere. It’s become something real for me.” Whilst horrific to some, for others these tragedies may become a sort of call to arms, with the sense that the world is tearing itself apart a signal of an opportunity. It is difficult, then, to claim the right of any tragedy to media attention, or certainly to argue that the attention is in the best interests of the victims or public. Nevertheless, the media’s primary duty is to inform, and they ultimately have a responsibility to cover all global issues, not simply those which are ‘fashionable’ in public opinion. However, the public also has a responsibility to inform themselves, and to interact with the media intelligently, rather than accepting all it publishes as fact.