Working in a Tight Spot

The fear of being killed by Boko Haram or harmed by the men of the Joint Task Force, JTF, is making journalists working in Borno State shy away from investigating stories on extra judicial killings in the state

By Ishaya Ibrahim  | Dec. 10, 2012 @ 01:00 GMT

HE IS one journalist who believes in doing investigative journalism with a gusto. He has fearlessly reported many controversial or sensitive stories on corruption involving government officials without fearing for his life for more than 10 years of practicing journalism. But now Ali Babagana, (real name withheld) a television reporter, who is in his forties, will think twice before embarking on any dangerous assignment in Maiduguri, Borno State, the hotbed of Boko Haram operations.

Babagana’s aversion to doing risky investigation of stories started September 17, 2011, after a man he interviewed was gunned down by members of Boko Haram shortly after. The man in question was Babakura Fugu, who had received former President Olusegun Obasanjo when he (Obasanjo) was in Maiduguri, on a peace mission with the Boko Haram sect. Babagana was devastated on hearing the news and kept thinking that he too was going to be the next target. Because of this, he had to hide for some time and resumed work only when he was sure that the heat had died down.

His fears are not misplaced. About a month after the Fugu incident, a colleague of his, Zakariya Isa, who worked with the Nigerian Television Authority, NTA, was also killed by Boko Haram. This, plus other threat messages from Boko Haram to journalists in Borno State, has made Babagana and other journalists fearful of reporting stories involving the sect. Several journalists in the state now tread with care in the course of their duties regarding reporting the sect’s operations and the actions of the JTF whose mandate is to checkmate them. They are also afraid of members of the JTF, who allegedly harass them when they publish stories that do not favour them.

The fear of Boko Haram is not limited to journalists working with local media houses. Some foreign media like Voice of America, VOA, British Broadcasting Corporation, BBC and Radio France, have relocated from Maiduguri to Abuja, from where they safely report the sect’s activities.

Shekau, Boko Haram leader
Shekau, Boko Haram leader

The threat posed by the sect has taken a huge toll on investigative journalism in the state. Reporters now shy away from accepting to do what they consider as dangerous assignments even to the point of disobeying their superiors. This was what happened in one of the television houses in Borno where reporters refused to investigate allegations of extra-judicial killings by the JTF on Friday, September 14, at Gwange community in Maiduguri.

According to the news editor of the television network, on Monday, September 17, she gathered her reporters to assess the situation and do a story on extra judicial killing allegedly carried out by JTF agents. Everyone at the meeting agreed that the story must be done as part of their social responsibility function to the society.  But the catch is that none of the journalists present at the meeting accepted to investigate the story. After a ding-dong in the newsroom, Babagana was asked to do it. He also refused.

Not only did he refuse, he also threatened to resign should he be pressured to do the story. His refusal was because of the killing of Fugu and Isa, whose deaths were still fresh in his mind. The two incidents made him unwilling to take another risk. So the news editor dropped the story for want of a reporter who was willing to take the risk.

In her office in Maiduguri, the news editor told Realnews that the fears of the reporters were genuine. “The militants are accusing us of bias and have threatened to deal with us. On the part of the military, they would think we are subverting their efforts if we keep picking holes in their activities. This is why no reporter wants to stick out his neck”, she said.

Lt col Sagir, refute allegation of intimidation against journalists
Lt col Sagir, refute allegation of intimidation against journalists

Another challenge journalists working in the state face, is their inability to get sources that would be willing to go on record. The news editor explained that even when a reporter agrees to take up stories on Boko Haram insurgency, he or she may find it very difficult to get people who would agree to stand before a television camera to prove the allegation of extra judicial killings. She added that even when they tell the person to stand behind the camera for the recording, he will still not agree.

However, Abba Kalami, chairman of the Nigeria Union of Journalists, NUJ, Borno State council, believes that journalists in Maiduguri, should have nothing to fear if they balance their report. He said the problem some of his colleagues often had with the Boko Haram militants was on misrepresentation of facts. He advised journalists to be very professional in doing their duties without taking sides with either the JTF or Boko Haram.

Law enforcement officials have denied hurting journalists. Lt. Col. Sagir Musa, in a phone interview disputed such claim, saying the JTF Operation Restore Order, would never gag or censor journalists on stories or issues relating to its operational activities. According to Musa, his guiding principle as a spokesperson of the task force is to let the media play its watchdog role.

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