Daily Trust

Plateau massacre, presidency’s complicity, and escapist scapegoating of the news media

After Premium Times’ over-the-top but nonetheless admirably ethical and well-intentioned apology and firing of its reporter for reporting, without verification, a certain Danladi Ciroma’s coldhearted justification for the Plateau massacre, a motley crowd of incorrigibly peevish government apologists looking for a convenient diversion from the gross incompetence of the government seized on the apology like a drowning man clutches at every twig and worked themselves into a pitifully maniacal frenzy against the Nigerian news media.  

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Some even went so far as to self-righteously wail that Premium Times’ apology won’t bring back the people who died as a result of its inaccurate reporting! Seriously? You have to truly take leave of your senses-if you had any to begin with-to assume that it was the reporting of Ciroma’s alleged justification for the savage mass murders of Berom farmers that ignited the equally unjust, barbaric murders of innocent Muslim travelers along Bauchi-Jos road.

Retaliatory murders are an abiding feature of communal conflicts in Nigeria. I covered several of them when I was a reporter. The perpetrators of these murders don’t need any prodding from the media to give vent to their bloodthirsty urges. It’s unforgivably simplistic to think that the news media are all-powerful, irresistible social syringes that inject thoughts and attitudes into people with immediate and dramatic effect.

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In any case, this is not the first time Miyetti Allah’s officials have been reported in the media to have justified, claimed responsibility for, or issued threats of, mass murders, which, to my knowledge, they have never denied. For instance, on January 4, 2018, chairman of Benue State’s Miyetti Allah, Garus Gololo,  told the BBC that the mass murder in Benue was a retaliation for the theft of 1,000 cattle. As far as I know, Gololo hasn’t disowned this interview. How was that different from what Ciroma was alleged to have said?

The Nation, incidentally Bola Tinubu’s newspaper, which originally published the quotes attributed to Ciroma, hasn’t repudiated its story, much less apologize for it. In fact, Yusufu Aminu Idegu, the Nation’s reporter who spoke with Ciroma, insists that his reporting was faithful to what Ciroma actually told him during a phone interview, and his paper stands by him. 

Interestingly, Ciroma admitted that he DID SPEAK with the reporter. He only said he was misquoted. “I told the reporter that leaders at the local and national levels should come together and resolve this crisis before it is too late,” he told Premium Times on June 29, 2018. So people who said the Nation’s reporter “fabricated” the interview, which other newspapers, including Premium Times, published are the real duplicitous fabricators. Not even Ciroma says the interview was fabricated.

From my experience as a journalist and as a journalism teacher, I can bet my bottom dollar that Ciroma only recanted the interview because of the massive backlash it instigated. Had Gololo’s interview with the BBC inspired a similar pushback, he might have denied it as well. This is an all-too-familiar media stratagem. 

And it isn’t just Nigerian public figures and public officials who traffic in this. For instance, sometime in 2012, the mayor of my city here in the US sued me and one of my final-year journalism students who wrote a story for our class website based on a speech I invited the mayor to deliver to my students. During the Q and A session, the mayor got carried away and talked about a certain “shady” land developer’s unacceptable ethical infractions without mentioning his name. My student put the pieces together and was able to identify who the “shady” developer was. She interviewed the developer and wrote her story. 

The mayor sued and said my student made up the story. (Politicians say this everywhere when they get into trouble for what they say). Thankfully, we had the full video recording of his talk, which we uploaded on our class website. The developer’s lawyer found the video recording and brought it to the mayor’s attention. That was the end of the story.

I should point out that what the Nation reporter did, that is, sharing his report with his colleagues from other media houses, is not unusual, either. It’s called pack journalism, and it happens even here in the United States. I hate it, but it is what it is. 

People who know nothing about journalism are also saying that the Nation reporter’s admission that he did not record his interview with Ciroma somehow invalidated his claims to have accurately reported him. In journalism, it is perfectly ethical and even legal to write a news story from unrecorded interviews. In fact, it is legal to write a story and even reconstruct quotes from memory so long as the quotes are consistent with what the interviewer says. Google Janet Malcolm and read up on her case with a psychoanalyst who sued her for attributing quotes to him that he said he never uttered. She won. Of course, I always tell my students to record their interviews AND take notes because most politicians will dispute a story when it provokes an unanticipated backlash.

In all of this, what galls me is the utter hypocrisy of ignoring the presidency’s own prejudicial statement on the Plateau massacre and pretending that Ciroma was accused of saying something that was unheard of. The presidency basically said almost the same thing that Ciroma is now disclaiming. This was how the presidency traced the trigger for the bloodletting in Plateau in an official statement: “According to information available to the Presidency, about 100 cattle had been rustled by a community in Plateau State, and some herdsmen were killed in the process.” That statement isn’t substantively different from what Miyetti Allah’s Ciroma was supposedly falsely quoted to have said: that the carnage was a retaliation for the theft of 300 cows. Will the presidency also have the decency to apologize, like Premium Times did, for disseminating “falsehood”?

If newspapers had cast headlines based on the press release from the presidency that went something like: “Plateau: death of 200 people retaliation for theft of 100 cattle–Presidency” it would have been accurate and would have stoked the same outrage that the quote attributed to Ciroma did. Remember that headlines are not designed to capture everything the body of a story contains because they can’t; they simply function to invite the reader to discover the content.

The presidency’s statement was issued a day after the crisis when tempers were still high and before an official investigation was conducted. That’s not how to de-escalate conflict. If the presidency is efficient enough to know the cause of the conflict only one day after it occurred, it should have used that almost prescient prowess to forestall it so that it won’t be in the business of apportioning blames and pointing out who started what first before official investigations. Every government’s ultimate goal should be to save lives.