Extremist groups and their communications strategies: influencing journalists in times of conflict

Just over a month ago, the Nigerian Military raided the offices of a leading Nigerian newspaper over their reporting of the Boko Haram conflict. The journalists from the Daily Trust were in North Eastern Nigeria to report on how Boko Haram were taking over towns in the region, but the military claimed they disclosed sensitive information about the conflict. For Dr Abdullahi Tasiu Abubakar, Lecturer in Journalism at City, University of London, this was yet another example of the intimidation strategies that Nigerian journalists are subject to: at the hands of both extremist groups and the government. We spoke to him to find out more about his research on strategic communications and conflict reporting.

By Carolina Are

Picture: @princearkman via Unsplash

Boko Haram

While working as a journalist for a local newspaper and the BBC World Service in Nigeria, Dr. Abubakar reported on the activities of Boko Haram. Later, as an academic, he became interested in how the group was trying to influence journalism. He started to research the group’s communication strategies, as well as those of the Nigerian military.

“Both groups – Boko Haram and the Nigerian Military – are trying to ‘manipulate’ media for their own purposes, which is detrimental to journalism as a profession and to the public interest,” Dr. Abubakar says. In particular, his research focuses on media audiences, strategic communications, cultural studies, conflict reporting and journalism ethics. In one of his latest articles, he used a case study of reporting on the Boko Haram conflict in Nigeria, analysing the nature and consequences of engagement among the various communicators involved.

Formed in Nigeria’s northeast around 2002 as a youth Muslim movement aimed at establishing a Salafist state, Boko Haram is an ISIS-linked group that turned to terror campaigns after a series of clashes with security forces. They were 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 world became aware of them after their abduction of 276 schoolgirls from Chibok in Borno State in April 2014, but they were responsible for a variety of other atrocities such as beheadings and suicide attacks, staged to attract media attention.

Boko Haram attack on UN building in Abuja – Picture by Dr Abdullahi Tasiu Abubakar

In his article, Dr. Abubakar writes that the group “both court and repel journalists as part of their communication strategies.”

“The irony is that [Boko Haram insurgents] didn’t go to university or study corporate comms. It’s a self-taught strategy, with some of them learning from the way the media operates, others from history – there are examples of other revolutions, such as the 1979 Iranian revolution, reported through the media, education or audiocassettes. Boko Haram’s communication strategy is self-taught, I don’t have evidence that they went to university learning as PR professionals. The military however had proper training, and it’s understandable for them to use these techniques, which they might have learnt in military schools and universities.”

Journalism in Nigeria: Between the Military and Boko Haram

Dr. Abubakar describes Boko Haram and the Nigerian government’s media dissemination strategy as a “stick and carrot” approach.  Information subsidies such as press releases are the ‘carrot’; while the intimidation of journalists is the ‘stick’.

“The gatekeeper role journalists have is being usurped by these actors,” he says. “What made journalists important for society was their role of determining what stories went out and how, but now that role is being taken away from them by people who are harmful to journalism.”

For Dr. Abubakar, both Boko Haram and the Nigerian government are utilising press releases as a way to control the flow of information, while at the same time they are blocking journalists’ access to the conflict zone, and threatening them when they cross the line. Add the fact that certain areas are dangerous and inaccessible for journalists, and the influence of these groups on journalism becomes more acute.

After obtaining data from focus groups and individual interviews with thirty-two journalists and strategic communicators in Nigeria, and after analysing Boko Haram videos and press releases from the Nigerian security forces,  Dr. Abubakar’s research concluded that journalists in Nigeria have an increasingly complicated but interdependent relationship with strategic communicators in conflict reporting. Journalists are subjected to harassment and intimidation, and are literally forced to spread the information both Boko Haram and the state want them to share. However, his research suggests that journalists still have an opportunity to exert some power over Nigeria’s news scenario, in a possible solution to the crisis:

“Strategic communicators still court journalists to help enhance the reach and credibility of their narratives, suggesting that the more the public uncovers strategic communicators’ false claims, the stronger the influence of journalists. Conversely, the more the gatekeeping role of journalists diminishes, the greater the power of strategic communicators becomes.”

Buildings burnt by Boko Haram – Picture by Dr Abdullahi Tasiu Abubakar

The Value of Journalism In Understanding Conflict

At the heart of Dr. Abubakar’s research is the idea that the public’s right to know about conflicts and current affairs is a basic right. “The world is increasingly interconnected, and the public have a right to have accurate information of what’s happening within and outside their environment. People in the area and abroad have the right to know,” he said.

Displaced people in Northeast Nigeria – Picture by Dr Abdullahi Tasiu Abubakar

For him, the public’s right to know can only be upheld by accurate, impartial journalism: “If something is impacting on the journalists’ ability to tell the story properly, that should be made public and addressed clearly,” he argues, adding that the media have a responsibility to protect the local community, informing them of facts surrounding them to keep them safe.

“Plus, highlighting a problem like the Boko Haram conflict to the government, to policy makers, will probably help them find ways out and develop strategies to address the actual problem – and once again, that can only come through accurate reporting.”

Displaced people – Picture by Dr Abdullahi Tasiu Abubakar

Consequences of the Journalism Crisis in Nigeria

“We are headed towards a crisis,”Dr. Abubakar argues. “The worry is that when strategic communicators manipulate information or engage in disinformation campaigns, the public is at risk because the media don’t have the funding and support to provide the information the public needs.”

For Dr. Abubakar, aside from media literacy, the pressing issue is rethinking how media can be funded, allowing journalists to work in the public interest.

Dr. Abubakar is currently still researching on the issues surrounding Boko Haram, which for him is a central issue because, aside from the conflict and the media, it has a long-term effect on the people directly affected and others outside it, from displacement to health matters and misuse of media.

Read Hostile Gatekeeping: The Strategy of Engaging with Journalists in Extremism Reporting by Abdullahi Tasiu Abubakar here.