Communique 05: When called to battle, the old guard falters

Notes on the media coverage of the #EndSARS protests and the future of journalism in Nigeria.

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A common people strove in vain

To shame us unto toil,

But they are spent and we remain,

And we shall share the spoil

- Rudyard Kipling, 'The Song of the Old Guard'

Under the blackness of night, in the final hours of Friday, October 17, 2020, hundreds (maybe thousands) of young Nigerians stood in clusters around the country, lit candles and phones dotting the horizon. These young men and women, with tears and sniffles and silence, mourned the lives of their compatriots lost to police brutality. The mood was sober, but not without hope.

For more than a week now, they have come out en masse to protest against police brutality, a rampant disease in the country, one especially carried by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS).

SARS was created in 1992 to combat an outbreak of robberies in Nigeria. But the group became the very thing it was made to fight against. SARS operatives often extort, sometimes kidnap, threaten, and even kill citizens. Nigerians have made countless calls to dissolve the group, with the government paying lip service each time. For 4 consecutive years (2017-2020), the government (or at least spokespeople within the government) announced the dissolution of SARS. Despite these announcements, the group has continued to operate.

So, young Nigerians, tired of the oppression and false promises, took to the streets to protest. The protests are mainly mobilised online. Social media posts call for people in different parts of the country to meet at specific spots. The demands are clear: that the government dissolve this rogue police unit and that all offending officers be charged. Online, there are videos, testimonies, and eye witness accounts of officers assaulting, threatening, and killing citizens. However, one thing that stands out is the attitude of the local traditional media to the protests.

Image Credit: Tobi James

For the first few days of the protest, traditional media were largely silent. If you rely solely on local TV or print publications for news, chances are you were unaware or unsure what the protests were about, particularly if you live outside Lagos. Ayomide Tayo, a journalist and Nigerian pop culture writer, says, “The initial response [of the traditional media] was slow. It was as if the seriousness of the protest caught them unaware.”

Ayodeji Rotinwa, Deputy Editor at African Arguments, says that there is anecdotal evidence from parents and older relatives who depend on local media for their news that they did not know a lot about the protests and were unsure what the protesters were agitating for.

Eventually, the traditional media woke up. But even then, their reporting has been shaky and riddled with misinformation. Yomi Kazeem writes this for Quartz Africa:

Around 3 pm on Monday, police officers in Lagos arrested entertainment entrepreneur Ademola Ojabodu while he was protesting in Lagos as part of nationwide calls for an end to local police brutality.

Within hours, Ojabodu’s family had learned that he was to be charged with the murder of a police officer earlier in the day. The news came after TVC News, a popular TV channel affiliated with Nigeria’s ruling party, reported that policemen had been shot during the protests.

In fact, a policeman had been shot and killed but, contrary to the narrative set out by some local broadcasters and the police, he had, in fact, died from accidental shots fired by his fellow police officers rather than by protesters… 

In another instance, Vanguard, a widely read national newspaper, falsely reported that a protester who was arrested but later released had been raped in custody—a report she has also since debunked with her legal team mainly through social media channels.

In Rotinwa’s opinion, the traditional media has not given the movement “the sophisticated, thorough, and immersive coverage that it is very well capable of, with its resources and networks of reporters, correspondents, and editors across the country. When Occupy Nigeria was the front-burner issue in January 2012, the coverage was unrelenting. Earlier this week, I [came] across a newspaper that had the protest as a headline but then the continuing story was a footnote, crowded out by other issues. It was startling to see.”

The old vs the new

Two issues are at play here. One, the protests have underscored the generational disconnect between traditional media and young Nigerians. Two, traditional media have been too comfortable with the status quo.

Both Tayo and Rotinwa agree that traditional media has lost its relevance to the younger generation. Tayo says, "There is a huge mistrust for traditional media right now. They are seen as pro-government and pro-status quo. While the new [media] are seen as the rebellious ones who want to narrate the frustrations of the younger generation."

Politics and the media

Apart from the generational disconnect, the dynamics of the relationship between the government and the mass media also explain the attitude of the traditional media to the protests. As Rotinwa pointed out, there is a remarkable difference between local media coverage of Occupy Nigeria in 2012 and the 2020 #EndSARS protests. That’s because infringements on press freedom are worse now than in 2012. (You can read about that here, here, and here.) Regarding these infringements, Zainab Suleiman Okino, a journalist and editorial board chair at Blueprint, says:

"Although the government won their re-election, they are still not comfortable. They try to muzzle journalists who have views different from theirs. Going forward there’s palpable fear in the air, fear that Buhari’s past as Nigeria’s military leader might be re-enacted."

It follows that if the government feels threatened by protests, there could be hesitation from journalists to cover those protests. For the fear of their lives and their jobs. We’ve seen this play out before: the government does not like a narrative or publication and it either tries to silence the publication or put indirect pressure on it.

However, while this might (and I emphasis might here) explain the initial hesitation to cover the protests, it does not explain or excuse the eventual quality of coverage and the misinformation (and sometimes pro-government undertones) that came with it.

Looking at the numbers

Traditional media houses are not investing enough to move with the times, Rotinwa says. While they have websites and some young employees, they are ultimately too comfortable with their advertising income streams and are not motivated enough about what comes next. While consumption trends favour new media, advertising, the lifeblood of the media business, continues to favour traditional media. As reported in The Guardian:

"In developed markets, internet advertising expenditures are expected to surpass TV, however, in Nigeria TV advertising is and will remain strong in the near future, a trend the latest data have shown… Of the N81 billion [of] advertising revenue recorded in the ATL [above-the-line] segment, television accounted for N29.4 billion [35.8%], followed by newspapers with N20.8 billion [25.7%]…"

The implication is that compared to developed markets where there is an imminent economic danger to traditional media (because digital audiences are evolving quickly and the market dynamics are deeper), that danger is not as immediate in developing markets like Nigeria. Traditional media still rakes in the bulk of the money and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

Another thing worth noting is in how Nigerians consume news. Despite the growing influence of the Internet and social media, radio and television are still more dominant sources of news for Nigerians. However, those trends are moving in opposite directions.

While radio and TV remain the major way Nigerians get their news, the figures are falling and the numbers for digital consumption are rising. For example, the percentage of Nigerians who use radio as their primary source of news fell from 83.9% in 2012 to 77.4% in 2014, and the percentage for TV fell from 73.6% to 64% within that same period.

Source: Broadcasting Board of Governors

A defining moment in history

In his book The Creation of the Media: Political Origins of Modern Communications, Paul Starr writes:

“The great political revolutions of the modern world…all raised the most fundamental questions about communications and knowledge, as they did about politics… In each case, revolutionary changes in politics brought about revolutionary changes in communications. (p. 5)

Contrast the coverage of the protests by the traditional media with that of new media platforms like Zikoko, Stears Business, Native, The Republic, etc. and the difference is clear. One group was slow to action and nonchalant to an era-defining story, they just could not see it quickly enough; the other group has dedicated most of its resources and human capital to covering and analysing the protests.

The #EndSARS protest is a revolution, and revolutions like this one define history. Even more so for the local media. I see the already declining traditional media consumption figures falling even faster, especially among the younger demographic, a group that has seen repeatedly that with the right use of a mobile phone, you can get a message out, bring together millions of people, and start a revolution. So, when the dust settles, the people will remember who stood with them and who didn’t. They will remember who amplified their voices and who didn’t. They will remember that when called to battle, when called to fight alongside them, the old guard faltered. They will remember.

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