Boko Haram's kidnapping of more than 250 Nigerian schoolgirls has received global attention thanks to a viral hashtag, #BringBackOurGirls, but violence by Boko Haram is nothing new in Nigeria. Bob talks with Nigerian journalist Alexis Okeowo, who has been covering the story for years, about the international media's sudden interest.
BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. Brooke Gladstone is out this week. I’m Bob Garfield.
During the night of April 14th, armed militants of the group
Boko Haram infiltrated a school in Chibok, Nigeria and kidnapped more than 250 girls from their beds at gunpoint. The girls were not blonde cheerleaders, so initial US coverage of the mass abduction was slight. Even in Nigeria, the incident barely registered on the media’s radar, until weeks later, due, in part, to suppression of the facts by the government of President Goodluck Jonathan and partly to terror fatigue. Atrocities by the radical Islamist separatist group had become tragically commonplace.
Now the world’s eyes are on Chibok, thanks mainly to a viral hashtag.
News Tape: The hashtag, #BringBackOurGirls exploding around the world over 12 days, reaching a million so far.
BOB GARFIELD: Yes, because of Twitter and the power of celebrity retweets, the international press has finally caught wind of the cruel years-old insurgency. Nigerian freelancer Alexis Okeowo has been reporting on Boko Haram from Lagos, Nigeria for years. She says that before this kidnapping the violence perpetrated by the group was barely covered by the international press.
ALEXIS OKEOWO: As we now know, Boco Haram has been waging an insurgency for five years in which it’s killed almost 4,000 people and in gruesome attacks. And, you know, these attacks which some - sometimes happen almost daily have just received very little attention from anyone outside of Nigeria on a consistent basis.
BOB GARFIELD: How could it possibly be that the kidnapping of - the number is still not clear, but let’s say 276 girls and young women - could have gone so under the radar in the first few days?
ALEXIS OKEOWO: In the days after the kidnapping, the military told people that it had rescued most of the girls. This, this turned out to be false. And then after that, there was silence for a number of weeks from the Nigerian government on what it was doing to get these girls.
And so, I believe the Nigerian government believed that Nigerians would just sort of get bored of the story or, you know, forget about it. There, there wasn’t a sense of urgency on the part of the government to actually find these girls, so there wasn’t much to work from, until reporters decided to go straight to the families themselves and, and see, you know, what happened that night, why – why are these girls still missing?
BOB GARFIELD: I understand what you’re saying about government indifference, intentional or not, but it's just hard for me to imagine that any established press knowing that 276 kids have been abducted not be a little more proactive and be demanding information from the government and investigating on its own.
ALEXIS OKEOWO: To be fair, I do think that there were some outlets, like the wires and various networks like the BBC and Al Jazeera that were trying to investigate. But, to be honest, this episode is, is an example of a failure of the local Nigerian media. At least in the initial days and weeks after the abduction, there was an extreme lack of investigation and questioning, which I think stems from this political climate where I don't think the press had the freedom to really question what was going on. And also, I am not sure if there was enough will on the part of journalists, which is a sad state of affairs.
BOB GARFIELD: In this case, is the attention of the international press a force of good?
ALEXIS OKEOWO: Yeah, I mean, I think in this case, while there have been maybe some side effects that are not so positive, in the sense that in the beginning when the international media was attracted to the story, they were more attracted to the sort of more tabloid aspects, rumors about what may have happened to these girls. Were they married off for $12 and, you know, all the sort of details that really were not as important as other parts of, of the case.
But I think now the attention is helpful because there is a level of investigation and criticism and questioning that the international media is doing of the Nigerian government and of military officials here that is very necessary and that wasn't done before by the local media. So, you know, I do think it is having a positive effect right now, as far as keeping pressure on the Nigerian government to show some results with this search.
BOB GARFIELD: You have been speaking to the villagers, including the parents of some of the abducted girls, who had to take it upon themselves, though this hashtag campaign, I suppose, to rally the attention of the press worldwide. What is their reaction to the coverage that has ensued?
ALEXIS OKEOWO: Anytime I talk to people up there or I call a new person up there, they honestly do seem quite grateful for the fact there is so much interest because, as you can imagine, for them not hearing anything from their government, not hearing anything from military, not even basic updates, they just feel like they’ve been ignored up there, that no one cares. And then to suddenly, you know, get a lot of phone calls every day, people questioning them, wondering what happened, asking how, how they are, I think that a lot of them do appreciate it. And I think that a lot of them associate that media coverage with action by foreign governments to help Nigeria, because they don’t believe Nigeria can do it on their own anymore.
BOB GARFIELD: I don’t want to leave the wrong impression. Under these circumstances, certainly the scrutiny of the world is good, but I guess I'm hung up on the vacuum left when this story ends and, and we move on to the next thing. Has anything been established, any infrastructure of coverage, that will be enduring, once the particulars of this story drift out of our consciousness?
ALEXIS OKEOWO: Well, that’s the thing. You know, a, a lot of international correspondents are here, who are here now, once they leave it's not as if they’re leaving anyone, in most cases, behind to keep monitoring the story. And even while they’re here, there's been extremely narrow focus that they’ve had. Boko Haram has continued to attack other villages, other people up north. Those attacks haven't really been reported as much as still this ongoing coverage of, of the missing girls. And so, I just – it just begs the question, you know, where were you guys over the years as Boko Haram has waged this campaign of terror? And where are you going to be as it continues, because this is not ending anytime soon? And the girls are only one case of many, many other instances of horror that is happening in the North.
BOB GARFIELD: Alexis, thank you very much.
ALEXIS OKEOWO: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Alexis Okeowo is a freelance journalist based in Lagos.