Nigerian Media Won't Cover the #EndSARS Protests, So Young People Are Doing It for Them

Local news outlets – some of which are owned by prominent politicians – have been reluctant to report on the growing unrest.
October 28, 2020, 2:26pm
PROTESTERS RAISE THEIR FISTS TO RECITE THE NIGERIAN NATIONAL ANTHEM IN FRONT OF LAGOS’S HOUSE OF ASSEMBLY GATE ON OCTOBER 9, 2020.
PROTESTERS RAISE THEIR FISTS TO RECITE THE NIGERIAN NATIONAL ANTHEM IN FRONT OF LAGOS’S HOUSE OF ASSEMBLY GATE ON OCTOBER 9, 2020. Photo: BENSON IBEABUCHI 

Over a week before the shooting started, photographer Umar Faruq Akinwunmi already feared for his life. He had only been covering anti-police brutality protests in Lagos for a few days when he wrote on Twitter that “sometimes, I picture myself lying down lifeless, camera in hand. The gory scene we see everyday but now it’s me.”

That tweet was sent on the 12th of October. Since then, the protests against Nigeria’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) – a unit of the Nigerian police accused of extortion, kidnapping and extra-judicial killings – have attracted global attention, as the anti-police brutality demonstrations have been met by further police brutality and bloodshed.

The youth-led protests have exposed huge generational fault lines in Nigeria with older people who rely on local, traditional media for their news.

While Akinwunmi’s social media-savvy father understood the sentiments driving his tweet, it took a while for his mother – who gets her news from traditional media that’s avoided covering the substance of the movement – to grasp. Akinwunmi had to explain to her why young people – the primary targets of SARS actions – were calling for change and what exactly protesters were out to achieve. He reminded his mother of the time his cousin had been arrested by SARS officials and detained for three days after he was falsely accused, without evidence, of being a member of a cult. This gave her a better perspective of the movement, Akinwunmi told VICE News.

The reluctance of Nigeria’s traditional media to cover the ongoing unrest has only grown in tandem with the protests. On the evening of the 20th of October – as footage began to emerge of what appeared to be the Nigerian military opening fire on peaceful demonstrators who had gathered at the popular Lekki toll gate site – the Nigerian Broadcasting Commission (NBC), the country’s media regulator, released a statement urging broadcasters to approach coverage of the attack with caution, and to restrain from doing anything that would embarrass the government and the country.

Many of the demonstrators saw this as evidence that the media was declaring themselves on the side of the government, and thus complicit in the attack. In the days following, protesters targeted traditional media organisations that appeared to have close relationships with the government.

On the 21st of October, buildings housing  Television Continental (TVC), Max FM and national newspaper The Nation were burnt down by angry demonstrators. TVC and Max FM are believed to be owned by the former governor of Lagos, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, who also happens to be the chairman of the All Progress Congress (APC), Nigeria’s ruling party. In the aftermath of the attack, Tinubu called for the victims of the shootings to be interrogated about why they were there in the first place, further angering demonstrators.

Nigeria presents a challenging knowledge ecosystem, where verified, independent information is hard to come by. In the 2020 World Press Freedom Index, Nigeria ranked 115th. There’s also nothing in the country’s laws stopping Tinubu – one of the most powerful politicians in the country, and a potential presidential candidate in 2023 – from owning a news company. Aside from all that, Nigerian politicians are not quick to speak openly and honestly about issues.

Despite footage showing heavily armed operatives in army camouflage, the Nigerian Army still claims they had nothing to do with the Lekki shootings, with its spokesperson claiming the Instagram Live videos that documented the events were "photoshopped". For the past week, the governor of Lagos has been saying in local press conferences that it’s still not clear who was behind the attack, only for him to admit in an interview with CNN on Monday that he believes it to be the military. In an address to the nation three days later, President Muhammadu Buhari, breaking a nine-day silence, made no mention of the attack at all. And nobody in the traditional media in Nigeria seems to be asking.

For Bright Alozie, an assistant professor of history at West Virginia University, it’s clear that traditional media in Nigeria has become too accustomed to working in the government’s favour. Alozie sees parallels with how the Nigerian government used the media as a tool at the start of the Nigerian civil war involving the breakaway state of Biafra.

“As the nation was boiling, in June 1966, the Supreme Military Council promulgated Decree No. 44," Alozie said. "This decree made it a punishable offence for anyone to ‘provoke the peace’ by a defamatory or offensive publication. However, that decree was basically targeted at preventing Biafra-based news agencies and media houses from calling out the federal government over the initial crisis."

Today, Alozie noted, it's #EndSARS protesters versus the state.

Laila Johnson-Salami is a co-anchor on Arise News’ flagship daily news programme – one of the few local media organisations covering the recent protests. In the past few weeks, she has reported from the toll gate as well as invited a number of young activists onto her show. Johnson-Salami has seen the impact coverage has on public perception. The more people learn about the protests, the 23-year-old told VICE News, the more supportive they become. “Most older generation Nigerians are in full support of this awakening,” she said, especially when they fully grasp the perspective of the activists.

Johnson-Salami isn’t only working to bridge the gap between older generations, but also to appeal to young people who have grown skeptical of the media.

"I remember covering the fifth day of the protests at the Lekki toll gate, and as the team and I were walking back to the bus – which we parked a good mile-and-a-half away – we received threats and were told never to come back,” Johnson-Salami said. “Did that scare me? Slightly, if I’m being honest, but the job is far too important for us not to overcome fears.”

Arise News was on the scene the day after the Lekki attack. Reporter Tokunbo Oyetunji showed the ruins at the toll gate at the same time NBC were putting pressure on broadcasters not to cover the event.

“Honestly, I take my hat off to some of my colleagues, like Tokunbo Oyetunji, who came out to report the day after the Lekki Massacre when Lagos was being raided and looted,” Laila added. “That’s true courage. I honestly encourage more local media outlets to take a stronger stand for and with the people. We cannot allow the media to be politicised.”

There is only so much Arise can cover on its own – and considering the #EndSARS protests were largely orchestrated through social media, youth media organisations that were originally built to mainly cover culture and the internet have been forced to step in and fill the large void.

Zikoko is an online magazine known for its witty quizzes and travel guides. They’ve recently launched a number of tools to help empower young people looking for ways to make a change, including Zikoko Citizen. “It’s a category that covers policy, politics and governance,” editor-at-large Ope Adedeji told VICE News.

Alongside sister platform Tech Cabal, they’ve worked to equip protesters with useful information, perspectives, facts and analysis through “videos, infographics, illustrations, listicles, etc., to make the information accessible and scalable".

“There was realising and understanding that, beyond writers, editors and journalists, we're citizens of Nigeria, and everything happening had a direct impact on our lives too,” said Adedeji. “There's also the fact that we covered a lot of human interest stories and had to pay attention to how fucked up SARS and police brutality is over and over again - even beyond our individual experiences.”

Alongside Zikoko, online magazines such as The Republic, NATIVE, and Stears have led the coverage of the movement, offering day-to-day reporting, analysis and guides on how to get involved. The fact their content is online helps them largely escape the reach of the government.

"Social media has been very instrumental in giving the press and media more freedom,” said Alozie. “This is a particular freedom that cannot be easily controlled by the government. Indeed, as we can see today, social media has been a vital tool.”

The Pobin Project, a platform inspired by the need to actively remember the victims of police brutality, launched in August, before the recent protests started. It published a few stories of victims of police brutality in Nigeria, but the initial responses to call-outs for testimony were low. That has changed in recent weeks. “With the protests, everyone is honoured to be a part of a historic moment, and others have been encouraged to share their stories,” said co-founder Kami Falodun.

Falodun cited the long-standing conflicts in the Niger Delta and their impact on its citizens, saying they haven’t been talked about as much as they should have been. "I'm interested in public memory – who we choose to remember, collectively, and how we remember them,” Falodun added. “We often forget, as humans are inclined to, when we are not directly impacted by an unfortunate event. I also thought the project would make us have a better grasp of the intensity of police violence in Nigeria and, hopefully, make us demand accountability from our leaders."

Recent denials from the government, local media and the army have generated doubts about the true history of Nigeria and what exactly is being taught.

Archivi.ng is collecting newspapers from Independence Day until the 31st of December, 2010, with the aim of digitally preserving over 18,000 days of Nigerian history. Fu'ad Lawal, the content lead and an editor at Zikoko, has had to watch on as the #EndSARS coverage has unraveled. He understands that there will be biases in these papers, because of the influence the government wields in journalism, and says this is the reason they are taking papers from all corners of Nigeria.

"All history is perception," Lawal told VICE News. "And it's why I believe that the work of archivi.ng is not only trying to archive the history we've barely had access to. It is actually gathering as many perspectives as possible. Many things can be true at once, but we'll never know if we never have access to it.”

Still, in the face of a system built on maintaining the status quo, there is a lot of work to do.

On Monday, ARISE News was fined N3 million by the Nigeria Broadcasting Commission for “unprofessional coverage” of the #EndSARS protests and a violation of the broadcasting code, as it was found guilty of airing what the watchdog considered were unverified images of the Lekki shooting.

The initial warning not to embarrass the government calls into question the objectivity of the regulatory authority and who they work for, according to MaryAnn Duke Okon, a broadcast journalist at News Central. “NBC has lost its power and value and has to regroup," she said, "and we as Nigerians have to ask for a reform in that regard. If we want to have a good broadcasting commission that has regulatory power over media houses, we have to be independent and unbiased.

“If it continues to be an arm or some department under the government jurisdiction, then there is no fair play in the Nigerian media industry.”