The recent #EndSars protests organized by Nigerian youths have continued to dominate media reports across the globe.
The latest is a special investigative story on the subject by CNN, a foremost international news outfit which should understandably attract the attention of broadcasters and media scholars, such as this writer. Our interest today concerns the controversy arising from claims and counter claims between Lai Mohammed, Nigeria’s information Minister and CNN over the report by the news outfit. Our take-off point is to appropriately conceptualize the exact issue at stake. While CNN is pointedly accusing the Nigerian state of killing unarmed peaceful protesters at the Lekki toll-gate on October 20, 2020, Lai is convinced that the otherwise respected international medium got the wrong perception of what happened which in the opinion of the minister ended as poor journalistic work.
Considering that the main mandate of the Information minister is to project his country positively, CNN’s report which painted Nigeria in bad light must have saddened him. In fairness to Lai, CNN and other dominant western-based media organizations are notorious for always using a defective prism to depict activities in developing societies. It is therefore easy to appreciate the minister’s condemnation of what he imagined to be an unprofessional one-sided report by the news medium. However, it is expedient to explain that the term investigative journalism, may not necessarily produce balanced reportage. This is because the term unlike general reporting, dwells essentially on the ability of a medium to interpret a quantum of available data to arrive at a conclusion which exposes certain hidden secrets of public interest. Consequently, the inability of a medium to similarly throw light on what one actor did or omitted to do cannot invalidate the exposed secret. In other words, whether or not CNN drew attention to any misdeeds by the protesters is irrelevant as the medium’s goal was to use investigative journalism to arrive at the truth of who did any shooting at Lekki. Therefore, Minister Lai’s expectation that CNN should have undertaken an overview of the entire protest so that her report can be seen to have been premised on balance and objectivity is a different assignment.
Even at that, the Minister’s accusation of imbalance against CNN is demonstrably diluted for approaching equity without clean hands even in dese days where human activity is largely dominated by handwashing. The minister condemned the news outfit for allegedly doing no investigation; yet, he himself made no effort to have a glimpse of all the unsuccessful attempts by CNN to get security agencies and the Lagos state government to comment on the data gathered by the news medium. According to CNN, none of those contacted to speak responded to her enquiries while one of them reportedly declined to make any comment so as to not prejudice the work of the judicial commission of inquiry established to investigate the matter.
Accordingly if Nigeria truly failed to use the opportunity presented to her to tell her version of the story, our officials need to be told that a no-comment response to media enquiries cannot veto an investigative report by a viable medium.
It is not difficult to appreciate CNN’s interest in unraveling the truth as to who should be blamed for the Lekki shootings.
The subject qualified for media investigation because it sadly gave birth to conflicting official versions. For example, when the incident occurred, the Lagos state governor said the matter was beyond his control. While some people interpreted that to mean the shootings may have been ordered by federal authorities, the military claimed they had no hand in it. There was in fact one version that those who operated at Lekki were hoodlums in fake military attire. Later, the military agreed they were there following their invitation by the same Lagos state governor but added that they never shot live bullets thereby dismissing the general rumour that many protesters were killed during the operation.
It was thus not out of place for any reputable medium to seek to unravel the truth. That appears to be what CNN set out to do; and from which she concluded last Wednesday that “soldiers used live rounds on protesters who had converged on Lekki tollgate on October 20” – a report which Minister Lai Mohammed has described as “irresponsible reporting.”
To evaluate CNN’s investigation, the method she adopted needs to be thoroughly examined. Here, we are quick to observe that the medium did not rush to any conclusion but reportedly gathered facts and interpreted them for no less than one month after the incident before producing a report. Secondly, she has now made her data gathering method public leaving room for critics to evaluate her. It is thus not irrational to imagine that if minister Lai had waited to examine the method, before hurriedly responding to the CNN report, his response would probably have been more incisive. As the news outlet affirmed, her report was “based on multiple witness account”, which she claimed was carefully and meticulously researched. In addition to dozens of witnesses she reportedly interviewed, CNN also claimed to have obtained photo and video materials which she geolocated and verified using timestamps to attain a painted picture of “how members of the Nigerian army and the police shot at the crowd, killing at least one person and wounding dozens more.” While these are strong allegations that should have been promptly refuted, we cannot fully condemn officials who in deference to the on-going judicial commission of inquiry reportedly declined to respond to the allegations.
However, Minister Lai seems to have opened another flank by describing CNN’s findings as a report on “massacre without bodies” when the same commission of inquiry is yet to arrive at such a conclusion – a posture that may possibly engender a suspicion that perhaps Nigeria had something to hide about the Lekki shootings. The step taken to hurriedly respond to CNN without gathering enough data on how she arrived at her report does not appear to be the viable option the nation should have adopted. Going forward now, Nigeria should demand a right of reply from CNN which she is ethically bound to grant so that responses to the specific issues raised can clarify the rather damaging report. This presupposes that all issues would be tabled; and appropriate responses collated before utilizing the right of reply. To do otherwise by accusing CNN of an unfriendly disposition or indeed by threatening to sanction her as the minister has done, virtually amounts to shadow chasing that will bear no fruits. In which case, CNN is likely to continue to stand by her story as she has already done more so, as she is familiar with the traditional approach of many African office-holders who habitually avoid the media on subjects about which they are unwilling to come clean.
The current face-off between CNN and Lai Mohammed concerning last months’ Lekki shootings is not helpful to the nation.
Instead, the resolve by President Muhammadu Buhari to meticulously avoid a recurrence of youth protests in the future, is a better approach than the resort to fitful media rejoinders on the subject.
Dr. Tonnie O. Iredia, OON, is former Director-General of Nigerian Television Authority (NTA).