By Farooq A.Kperogi, Ph.D.
For four days, beginning June 6 through June 10, 2014, the Nigerian military confiscated thousands of copies of Nigeria’s top newspapers reputedly on “security” grounds. Military spokesman Chris Olukolade told the news media that the seizures of the newspapers were no more than “routine security action” in the wake of “intelligence reports indicating movement of materials with grave security implications across the country using the channel of newsprint-related consignments.”
At the end (or has it ended?) of the “routine security action,” the military didn’t find any “materials with grave security implications” in any newspaper and, as far as I am aware, military authorities have not apologized to the newspapers whose businesses were rudely and crudely disrupted for days.
It’s interesting that a military that can’t find hundreds of abducted girls weeks after their abduction, that couldn’t forestall two fatal bombings—in quick succession— at a crowded bus station in the nation’s capital, and that can’t even protect its own members against terrorists suddenly got “intelligence reports” that weapons of mass destruction had been mysteriously concealed in “newsprint-related consignments.” Because of this, soldiers continually harassed and dehumanized newspaper distributors, vendors and even readers across the country. So even reading newspapers can have “grave security implications.” How interesting!
Well, it turned out that the “materials with grave security implications” were also written on newspaper pages; they weren’t merely concealed in “newsprint-related consignments.” Why else would readers be beaten for reading a newspaper? A Nigerian newspaper editor told Reporters without Borders that soldiers “flipped through the pages [newspapers] to be sure that there is no major stories on Boko Haram.”
So the “materials with grave security implications” were also in the uncomfortable stories newspapers wrote about the military in the past few days.
One of those uncomfortable stories is Daily Trust’s exclusive June 4, 2014 story about top generals who illegally shared a plot of land that the government had designated as the site for a barracks. Another is Leadership’s story about the alleged court-martial of several serving generals who actively aid and abet Boko Haram terrorists. The story has been picked up by many international news outlets.
Maybe it’s these kinds of uncomfortable stories in newspapers that the military considers the real “materials with grave security implications” that must be prevented from circulating. But that’s stupid for at least three reasons.
One, iron-clad strangulation of the news media in the form of violent seizures of copies of newspapers or shutting down of broadcast stations is an old, tired, discredited form of censorship. In our increasingly interdependent world it’s the surest way to destroy any government’s reputational capital. I thought the Jonathan government would have quickly called the military to order and told it to stop this primitive suppression of the press—that is, assuming the government didn’t, in fact, give the orders in the first place. Presidential spokesman Doyin Okupe removed all doubt when he said the serial clampdown on the media was just a little temporary discomfort that Nigerians should learn to live with in the fight against terrorism! This government, I tell you, is more nitwitted than I ever thought possible for any government.
Now, in addition to the international embarrassment that the Jonathan government has been exposed to in the wake of its crying incompetence in the rescue the Chibok girls, the world is waking up to the realization that the Jonathan government is a creeping fascist dictatorship. That’s not a label any thinking government wants to be associated with. But this isn’t a thinking government.
Second, it’s elementary public relations that you don’t dispel a negative story by amplifying it. As I said earlier, by confiscating newspapers in hopes of suppressing the uncomfortable stories they published about the military, the military only gave wings to those stories. This isn’t helped by the terrible public image of the military among the Nigerian public. The civilian population sees Nigerian soldiers as a bunch of primitive, narcissistic, incompetent, and corrupt bullies who can neither protect the nation from both internal and external aggression nor save themselves. The military’s embarrassingly subpar performance in its fight against Boko Haram has particularly exposed to it so much scorn and erased the plaudits it had earned in peace-keeping operations in the West African sub region.
In light of this disconcerting reputational deficit, the civilian population in Nigeria, which has .lived with the insufferable arrogance and brutality of the military, is prepared to believe the worst about the military.
The third reason the seizure of print copies of newspapers is stupid is that newspapers now have a dual presence: hard-copy and online presence. Nigerian newspapers are actually several folds more popular online than they are offline. All of the newspapers that the military seized get more daily hits on their websites than the combined annual hard-copy circulation of all newspapers and magazines in the country. Seizing hard copies of newspapers in a bid to suppress stories is the stupidest, most primitive form of censorship in the digital age. Stories that are suppressed in physical form almost always become “social stories,” that is, stories that go viral because they are voluntarily shared by users on social media platforms.
A military that is still stuck in nineteenth-century notions of censorship can’t confront a 21st century enemy. A military that thinks seizing hard copies of newspapers is all that is needed to suppress the newspapers is not worth its name. A military that has no metal detectors to test whether “newsprint-related consignments” contain “materials with grave security implications” and instead forcibly seizes newspapers and brutalizes distributors, vendors and readers is a doomed military.