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Politics & Law Series: Expert Comment

How journalists engage with the militants and military in covering extremist activity

New research demonstrates that journalists reporting on Boko Haram experience gatekeeping from strategic communicators acting for both the extremists and the armed forces

by Chris Lines (Senior Communications Officer)

Journalists have a tense but interdependent relationship with strategic communicators that is characterised by conflict and cooperation, harassment and intimidation, according to new research by a City, University of London academic.

Dr Abdullahi Tasiu Abubakar’s research, using a case study of reporting on the Boko Haram conflict in Nigeria, has found that strategic communicators’ control of the conflict theatre and use of the internet to reach audiences give them direct leverage in the relationship with journalists.

The communicators, however, rely on journalists to help enhance the reach and credibility of their narratives, while journalists depend significantly on their media releases.

A Senior Lecturer in City’s Department of Journalism, Dr Abubakar (pictured) drew the primary data of the study from focus groups and individual interviews with 32 journalists and strategic communicators, and from analysis of Boko Haram videos and Nigerian security forces’ press releases.

The report, entitled ‘Hostile Gatekeeping: The Strategy of Engaging with Journalists in Extremism Reporting’, is published in the latest volume of the Defence Strategic Communications journal.

It highlights the role of the internet in the changing nature of strategic communications, and in particular how it empowers both Boko Haram insurgents and the Nigerian armed forces.

Challenging conditions for reporters

The speed with which disinformation (deliberate spread of erroneous information), misinformation (accidental or unwitting spread of erroneous information) and hate speech can be spread in the internet by disinformation operators to “uncritical publics” creates tremendous challenges for journalists covering conflicts, the study says.

While the origins of strategic communications can be traced back to the 4th century BC and Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu, modern technology is helping terror groups to spread their propaganda to audiences like never before. This report demonstrates how Boko Haram has shown dexterity in this area.

Formed in 2002, initially as a peaceful movement, Boko Haram has become the deadliest terror group in Africa, whose insurgency is blamed for the death of over 30,000 people and the displacement of three million others in Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon over the last decade.

The group seems to thrive on violence and its members are accused of committing many atrocities including beheadings and mass executions. But what really caught the world media’s prolonged attention was their 2014 abductions of 276 Chibok schoolgirls.

The study suggests that one of the intentions of Boko Haram attacks is to attract media attention: “It is a component of their strategic communications campaign”.

Indeed, the group used the Chibok schoolgirl abductions to secure the release of some of their commanders and gain concessions from the Nigerian government.

But whether it is kidnappings or bombings or beheadings, such actions are partly carried out for the attention they will create.

Military 'gatekeepers'

The report also focuses on the tension between journalists and Boko Haram and the ‘gatekeeping’ role played by strategic communicators. It also shows how the relationship between journalists and the armed forces can often be just as challenging.

Journalists told Dr Abubakar that their relationship with the military was a mixture of cordiality, intimidation and harassment. One television reporter said: “They are unpredictable; they could be nice in one moment and antagonistic in another.”

And, when asked about dealing with journalists, one army public relations officer admitted: “Yes, I do ignore their calls sometimes and even get irritated by them.”

In June 2014, according to a Freedom House report, armed Nigerian soldiers seized and destroyed copies of several editions of newspapers from about ten media houses in the country. A military spokesperson described the measures as a “routine security action” to search for alleged contraband, but they were widely interpreted as reprisals for the coverage of the military’s faltering efforts against Boko Haram, says Freedom House.

The study concludes that there has been a power shift in the dynamics of the relationship between journalists and strategic communicators, with the power shifting from the former to the latter.

But this power shift does not end strategic communicators’ reliance on journalists to enhance the credibility of their narratives, which shows the continued value of journalists and is a sign that their relationship, despite its complexity, may nevertheless continue.

Dr Abubakar’s report also poses two questions for future study of the Boko Haram conflict:

  • How much does strategic communicators’ use of information subsidies (e.g. press releases) influence the media coverage of the Boko Haram insurgency?
  • To what extent has the media’s lack of access to the actual conflict zones affected our understanding of the crisis?

Read the paper

Hostile Gatekeeping: The Strategy of Engaging with Journalists in Extremism Reporting is published in Defence Strategic Communications, the official journal of the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence. The full paper can be read from page 51 in the PDF available for public download here.

Photo: Boko Haram soldiers on a quad bike with mounted gun (Flickr: Creative Commons).

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