Friday, June 27, 2008

Niger Delta, media coverage and conflicting signals

THERE is an ongoing debate in academic and non-academic community, including diplomatic groups about the ability of the news media to influence government policy aimed at resolving conflicts. At the international level, the argument is framed to suggest that sustained media coverage of a conflict usually propels governments to develop policies to resolve the conflict. This is the phenomenon frequently referred to as the "CNN effect", a term derived from the perceived global impact of the Cable News Network (CNN).

CNN's prolific correspondent Christiane Amanpour repeatedly refers to how the sustained television coverage of the Bosnian conflict in the late 1990s compelled the United States to intervene in the conflict, in concert with other member countries of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). Prior to the intervention, Amanpour argued, the United States had ignored the events in Bosnia for three-and-a-half years.

Implicit in this view is the notion that media coverage influences the development of government policy relating to conflicts. However, there is a corresponding question that asks: does lack of media coverage also imply lack of government policy about certain conflict zones? Some senior government officials often contend that media coverage does not really create policy but shapes the situation that facilitates the development of policy. Some people also say that media coverage can influence policy only when there is a policy vacuum. The debate over the ability of the media to influence policy development is as controversial as the questions that it generates.

In the case of the festering Niger Delta conflict, there are a number of questions that easily pop up. One: how much attention do Nigerian news media give to the Niger Delta conflict? Two: has media coverage of the Niger Delta conflict resulted in the development of an effective federal policy toward a resolution of the conflict? Three: has insufficient media coverage of the conflict resulted in the absence of government policy on the Niger Delta crisis? Four: does President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua's government have any clear policy on how to resolve the conflict?

These questions are relevant and even more critical in light of the most recent acts of criminal violence that resulted in the destruction of oil facilities in the Niger Delta region. And there is no indication the militants will stop blowing up oil facilities in spite of the reported offer of a cease fire.

While the media has been up to the challenge of covering the conflict in the Niger Delta, I would argue that the Nigerian media coverage of the conflict has been somewhat episodic. Media coverage of the Niger Delta is sporadic because it lacks consistency and the media tend to follow the crisis as it unfolds. Consider this: if there are no explosions, no abductions, no shootings and no killings in the Niger Delta cities, the region would most certainly disappear from the radar of journalists. But the moment a school child is kidnapped in Port Harcourt or Warri or Yenagoa, the media would encircle that city and cover the event until it loses currency or until another event breaks out in the region or elsewhere.

This type of punctuated coverage is not unique to Nigerian media. The media across the world are known to be crisis-oriented. Wherever a crisis occurs, you can be sure the media will scale all hurdles to cover that crisis. There are two factors that distinguish periodic media coverage of the Niger Delta conflict from sustained media coverage of other conflicts in some parts of the world. The first underlying factor is lack of consistency in coverage. If media coverage is episodic, governments and indeed the general population tend to tune in and tune off in sequence with the tenor of media coverage. The counter-argument is that if the media are relentless in covering conflicts, if the media feed their audiences with regular diet of images of blood and dead bodies in conflict zones, the immediate outcome could be a sharp decline in media audience owing to compassion fatigue - that is, the audience becomes weary of news of disasters, human suffering and pain.

The second factor that accounts for the intermittent media coverage of the Niger Delta has to do with the remoteness of the news location and the international or national significance of the news event. Other than the major cities where the Niger Delta militants stage their sporadic attacks before they retreat to their hideouts, remote or regional areas tend to create accessibility problems for journalists. When journalists manage to reach remote news locations, they don't stay for too long because of problems of access and lack of basic infrastructure.

The international or national dimensions of the Niger Delta conflict are also important in this analysis of the media coverage. The Niger Delta conflict has remained largely a localised conflict in the sense that the kidnappings and killings are restricted to the region. Although some overseas nationals have become victims of abductions and although oil facilities have been hit and continue to be hit by the militants, the focus has shifted to the abduction of local people from whose families the militants hope to reap instant financial dividends before the hostages are released. The blowing up of oil facilities in the past one week has raised the tempo of the conflict. Is there any way out of this logjam? Is there no path to peace in the Niger Delta?

The federal government's fire-fighting approach to the conflict suggests the government has no effective or meaningful policy on the Niger Delta. It is perhaps this absence of policy which the militants have exploited so effectively to unsettle the government. Despite occasional threats to use force to subdue the militants, despite assurances that peace would soon return to the region, nothing really has been achieved.

Since his ascension to the presidential throne, Yar'Adua has been telling the nation that he was committed to peace in the Niger Delta and that he is the man with the key to the resolution of the conflict. Perhaps he is right. Or, may be he is just a false prophet. Before last week's confrontations, the government has been trying to assemble key interest groups in the region, including credible leaders across the country to undertake another brainstorming session on how to douse the conflict. If everything goes well, we may witness the first national conference on the Niger Delta.

But questions persist. How the government plans to resolve the Niger Delta crisis through a national conference is unclear. What is also in doubt is whether the government has an in-depth understanding and appreciation of the chief causes of the conflict. Government officials continue to refer to the crises as mere criminal activities. That misperception of a serious conflict underlines government's nonchalant attitude toward the region.

In the last one week, Niger Delta militants successfully provoked Yar'Adua to the point where his patience snapped and he declared a war on the militants. What has emerged from Yar'Adua's latest reaction to the blowing up of oil facilities in the Niger Delta is that the government is yet to fashion out a way to read and understand the militants. Here is proof. Whenever militants undertake major acts of violence aimed at crippling the production of the nation's chief foreign exchange earner, the typical reaction from the government is to release incendiary comments that further inflame the situation. Militants don't understand the language of threats. And the federal government ought to be aware of this.

The Niger Delta conflict is a national tragedy. Yar'Adua and his advisers have a major challenge in resolving the conflict. The government needs to map out a policy that recognises the key issues in the conflict, an understanding of the nature of the crisis, the modus operandi of the disparate groups, the factors that fuelled ceaseless agitations in the region, the views of community leaders, and why the youth are the most vocal and uncompromising champions of the cause of the Niger Delta. A policy that seeks to resolve the crisis must articulate these elements and lead to a sustainable program of peace in the region and reconciliation with the people.