On Monday, Boko Haram, the terrorist group that abducted more than 200 girls from a school in northeastern Nigeria last month, released a video ostensibly showing the captives. It was the first time the media and the world at large had seen them since their kidnapping. Punch, Nigeria’s most-read newspaper, posted the video alongside a scant hundred words drawn from the BBC. Nigeria’s leading newspaper relied on a foreign news outlet to report on the biggest story in the country.
Punch’s reporting isn’t unusual. Since gunmen seized a reported 276 girls from their school in Chibok, Borno state, on April 14, Nigerian media has relied on a mixture of government pronouncements, foreign coverage, and reporting in Abuja and Lagos (the country’s capital and largest city respectively) to cover the story. Few stories have featured on-the-ground reporting in Chibok.
Ever since Boko Haram began its insurgency in 2009, local news organizations have found it increasingly difficult to report on the group, hampered by dwindling resources, instability in the areas most affected by insurgents, and the terrorists’ own hostility to the press.
Although Nigeria boasts hundreds of radio and television stations and nearly as many newspapers, local outlets are struggling with a media downturn. “There’s a revenue crisis in the media generally in the country today,” said Dapo Olorunyomi, editor in chief of investigative news site Premium Times. “Most [organizations] can’t even keep paying salaries. Most of them can’t even maintain offices.”
The majority of major media outlets are based in Lagos and Abuja, and simply don’t have the resources to set up bureaus in the northeast. Even if they did, it would be an especially dangerous assignment for reporters. “The kind of safety resources available [in the West] for journalists who cover dangerous assignments are just not even available,” Olorunyomi said. “Most of the media houses in the country lack insurance policies for their journalists.”
Premium Times has just one reporter in the northeast: Ola Audu. Based in Borno, Audu also covers neighboring Yobe and Adamawa states—a combined area roughly the size of New York state. Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan declared all three under a state of emergency last year. Strict security measures included shutting down the cellphone network for months at a time, effectively cutting off public contact with that part of the country. (Nigeria’s cellphone networks are erratic at best, though most people in the country have switched from landlines.)
Unable to send reporters up north, most Nigerian outlets report what they can from Lagos and Abuja, depending on official sources like the government-owned News Agency of Nigeria. But government reports are notoriously unreliable: On April 16, two days after the Chibok abduction, the Nigerian military announced that all but eight of the girls had escaped or been freed, only to admit a few days later that the statement was false.
Nigerian coverage of Boko Haram is also complicated by the group’s belligerence towards the media. Militants bombed the Abuja and Kaduna offices of This Day newspaper in 2012. And Channels TV reporter Enenche Akogwu was killed by unknown gunmen while reporting on terrorist attacks in Kano, northern Nigeria, the same year. The insurgency “defines part of its own communications strategy as harassing media institutions that they think are unfriendly,” Olorunyomi said. “The consequence of that is that it’s also created a fear culture that’s led to some form of self-censorship.”
But now the world’s media is descending on Nigeria and the increased scrutiny has forced local reporters to step up their coverage. Channels TV accompanied Nana Shettima, the wife of the governor of Borno, when she visited Chibok last week to see some of the girls who had escaped. And Vanguard newspaper interviewed parents of the missing girls in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno. “Very few Nigerian journalists have done on-the-ground Chibok reporting,” Olorunyomi said. “Now everyone is trying to run to Chibok.”