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EndSARS-watch: FG’s attack on CNN and journalism- Martins Oloja

Before the (constituted) authorities in Abuja release their curious strategy for ‘sanctioning’ the Cable News Network (CNN) as they have promised for the network’s investigative report on the conundrum surrounding the October 20-10-2020 alleged military attack on #EndSARS protesters at the lucrative Lekki tollgate, let’s deconstruct not just some of the facts of the allegations against the CNN and indeed other local media organisations the almighty National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) has already arbitrarily sanctioned.
I would like us to go back to open studies schools to re-examine some of our common prejudices against journalism even in global context. This has become necessary because of all the professions in the world, journalism appears to be the only profession other professionals, public officers and even business elite would like to teach even journalists – how to practise..

“Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.”

What is worse at the moment, the advent of social technologies that has created digital platforms has ingeniously suggested a ‘death sentence’ to journalism they have also tagged ‘citizen journalism’. Now every one that has access to the Internet and data can create a newspaper and even a radio or television channel and disseminate all sorts of material to the world through texts, sounds and videos. Yet as some experts have just noticed, why are there no ‘citizen lawyers’, ‘citizen architects’, ‘citizen doctors’, citizen ‘civil servants’, citizen pilots, etc?

This is curious but it appears that there is hardly any reference to the fact that journalism is not just a practice or a profession or a craft, it is a constitutional social responsibility. And here is the thing, journalism is a profession constitutions in most popular democracies recognise as the fourth arm of government, the ‘Fourth Estate of the Realm’. How many times will scholars and speakers quote Section 22 of Nigeria’s constitution as amended, which recognises the role of the press and mass media?

Section 22 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria states that the press, radio, television and other agencies of the mass media shall at all times be free to uphold the fundamental objectives contained in this chapter and uphold the responsibility and accountability of the government to the people.

This is not another seminal paper on journalism practice. It is just a conversation on how not to tag journalism as ‘enemies of the people’ as most leaders in the world including the embattled president the United States, have continued to portray journalists for doing the jobs the organic laws of the land assigns to them. What is more worrisome now, the creators of ‘fake news’ modules are now tagging journalists as carriers of ‘fake news’ and the same creators are crying blue murder and they want to regulate the traditional and social media they allege carry the ‘fake news’ they forge to cover up their irregularities and scandals.

Let’s come to the brass tacks, the recent attack by the Federal Government of Nigeria, a global news channel, CNN for its investigative report on the cover-ups and denials of the shootings at #EndSARS protesters at the Lekki tollgate on October 20-10—2020 has again brought to the fore the danger the Nigerian media will continue to face in the course of covering rebuilding of Nigeria’s broken walls. That attack on the CNN to the extent that the global media organ should be sanctioned, is an attack on journalism, another war on truth and open government initiative Nigeria’s government has subscribed to.

The Content and Context:
Nigeria’s Minister of Information, Alhaji Lai Mohammed had last Thursday lashed out against CNN saying the network should be sanctioned over its investigation, which uncovered evidence that the Nigerian army and police opened fire on unarmed protestors on October 20. The CNN’s investigation focused on a demonstration against police brutality, led by the largely peaceful “#EndSARS” movement, which mysterious hoodlums hijacked and ended.

The Minister for Information and Culture had dismissed the CNN investigation as “fake news” and “misinformation,” repeatedly denying that the military used live rounds of bullets against protesters.

His words: “Like everyone else, I watched the CNN report. I must tell you that it reinforces the disinformation that is going around, and it is blatantly irresponsible and a poor piece of journalistic work by a reputable international news organisation,” he told reporters at a press conference in Abuja, in the most significant Federal Government response so far to the October 20 violence.

“This is very serious and CNN should be sanctioned for that,” he noted. CNN says it stands by its investigation, as a company’s spokesperson said.

“Our reporting was carefully and meticulously researched, and we stand by it,” the spokesperson said via email. The CNN report was based on testimony from dozens of witnesses, and photos and video obtained and geo-located by CNN. The investigative report painted a picture of how members of the Nigerian army and the police shot at the crowd, killing at least one person and wounding dozens more.

The report reinforced what some local media have published too that protesters Victor Sunday Ibanga and Wisdom Okon haven’t been located since the protest on October 20, according to members of their families. The Governor of Lagos State, Babajide Sanwo-Olu too earlier said two persons had died. So, whose bullets killed them?

What is at issue, CNN verified photos and videos acquired from multiple eyewitnesses and protesters using timestamps and other data from the video files. The report’s video footage shows soldiers who appear to be shooting in the direction of protesters. And accounts from eyewitnesses established that after the army withdrew, a second round of shooting happened later in the evening by the policemen who took over from soldiers.

CNN said prior to publishing the report, it tried multiple times to elicit comments from the Nigerian army and police. A Lagos State police spokesman declined to comment because of an ongoing investigation. While a statement from the Lagos State government said that there would be no comment while a judicial tribunal was underway. CNN also included comments from army representative Brigadier Ahmed Taiwo, testifying before the tribunal. The officer had denied that soldiers would shoot at Nigerian citizens.

Specifically, the CNN’s investigation, which was broadcast and published on Wednesday, cast doubt on Nigerian authorities’ shifting and changing statements over what happened at the protest at the Lekki tollgate in Lagos.

While addressing reporters last Thursday, Nigeria’s Information Minister insisted that “the military did not shoot at the protesters at the tollgate” but fired blank ammunitions into the air, blaming looters for the violence, which broke out on the night of October 20. “Six soldiers and 37 policemen were killed all over the country during the crisis,” the minister said. “CNN relied heavily on unreliable and possibly doctored videos as well as information sources from questionable sources to reach these conclusions,” he continued. But the minister did not provide any evidence that the videos were doctored. Nor was there any reference to an earlier statement by the army spokesperson Major-General John Enenche that the coverage of the 20-10-2020 shooting was a ‘fake news’ item.

Meanwhile, the CNN report included evidence that bullet casings from the scene matched those used by the Nigerian army when shooting live rounds, according to current and former Nigerian military officials. Accordingly, two ballistics experts also confirmed to CNN that the shape of the bullet casings indicate they used live rounds, which contradicts the army’s claim they fired blank bullets.

While the Minister for Information and Culture asserted that “not a single family” has reported the death of relatives during the protest on October 20, the Chief Coroner of Lagos State has since issued a public call for all those who have “lost loved ones between 19 – 27 October 2020” to come forward and provide evidence, which could assist in the “identification exercise.”

Strangely, the Federal Government’s call for sanction against international news station, CNN also included a Nigerian exile, DJ Switch, for allegedly promoting ‘fake news’ on the Lekki EndSARS protest. The minister specifically took swipes at the popular Disc Jockey, Switch, whose real name is Obianunu Catherine Udeh, for claiming that many protesters were killed by troops. D.J Switch had earlier debunked the claim credited to her by a strange Twitter handle that about 65 died. The young lady’s digital dexterity at the tollgate scene provided the primary evidence that others have relied on. In other lands, Ms Udeh would have been hailed by authorities and the people as a major hero of the #EndSARS struggle. Wherever she is in North America, she should take a bow. She should not be discouraged. She has been part of the struggle to reclaim Nigeria from the stranglehold of scoundrels in power at all levels. She should note that Alhaji Lai Mohammed is just discharging his responsibility to the government he serves. While the former Spokesperson of the governing party, APC, Alhaji Mohammed is doing his job, to manage government reputation, we journalists have our responsibility to present facts, yes facts, which are sacred as journalism rule empowers us.

Instead of condemning journalists, let’s share some knowledge on what news you are curious about every second is all about. Let’s share some thoughts on newsgathering, which is the focal point of journalism, which CNN and others practise as the ‘Fourth Estate of the Realm’. “News is something somebody doesn’t want printed; all else is advertising.”― William Randolph Hearst. Oscar Wilde said, “Speaking the truth that somebody wants you not to publish is journalism. Everything else is marketing.” “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.” Yet we found another similar quote from Horacio Verbitsky (in Spanish):“Journalism is to spread what someone does not want you to know; the rest is propaganda.” A version of this quote first appeared on 30 November 1918, on page 18, column 4 of The Fourth Estate: A Newspaper for the Makers of Newspapers, Ernest F, Birmingham, Fourth Estate Publishing Company, New York. The quote is as follows: “Whatever a patron desires to get published is advertising; whatever he wants to keep out of the paper is news,” is the sentiment expressed in a little framed placard on the desk of L. E. Edwardson, day city editor of the Chicago Herald and Examiner. You can now see why Nigeria’s Information and Culture Minister is just doing what he is paid to do: ‘public relations and advertising’ for his employers.

But the point is: no power on earth can stop the role of the press and mass media in any political system. There are enough provisions in the laws everywhere to deal with allegations against the media.

Martins Onoja is the Editor-in-Chief (EIC) of The Guardian Newspapers Limited.

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