The adoption of new media and online news outlets in Nigeria has increased citizens’ access to information while making it easier for them to contribute to public discourse. However, like everything good, there are downsides and potential side effects. Content publication on the internet is a jungle where anything goes particularly when legislations that hold people accountable for what they put out in the cyberspace are still weak in this country.
The legacy media have always held themselves accountable, if only to ensure they maintain their credibility while avoiding costly litigations and liability for any story that goes wrong. They consequently demand the highest ethical standards from their employees and put their publications through rigorous checks. Traditionally, such checks include consideration for national interest and national security which experts insist is absolute and can never be compromised.
This consideration is, however, lost on the growing array of bloggers, blog sites and online newspapers that give no thoughts to how their activities affect national security. They have, in recent times, operated in ways that suggest they sometimes deliberately report for the benefit of the Boko Haram terror group. They have often published information that the legacy media would embargo for their sensitivity, appropriateness or awaiting further corroboration.
Decisions by the bloggers or online news sites to publish such damaging information can easily be put down to sensationalism that will fetch more traffic to their sites, which translates into more revenue. There is, however, the outside chance that they publish questionable information out of mischief and for the pleasure of spreading falsehood. In the extreme, there is the possibility that they lie as part of a grand plan to undermine national security institutions in favour of Boko Haram or other foreign interests.
For instance, some of the online platforms have singled out the Nigerian Army as the target of sustained attacks even as the service continues to fight terrorism in the North-East of the country. Casualty figures are carelessly allocated to the Army without using the ethically expected authorities in confirming the number of deaths reported. In such instances, the corresponding casualty among the terrorists is either glossed over or completely ignored to create the impression that the Army is losing the war against terrorism. Troops are also reported as lacking morale over unpaid allowances without recourse to educating readers on the intricacies of securing budget approval and disbursement. Readers are thus unable to appreciate the complexity of the situation.
The mischief gets to its height when the Army is reported as if it were independent from the Federal Republic of Nigeria and that it does not answer to the Armed Forces Headquarters that in turn answers to the Ministry of Defence, or the President. The erroneous impression is created that the Armed Forces are insulated from the economic realities in the land and are able to print their own currencies to buy hardware and pay troops’ allowances.
Admissibly, there is the prevailing need for the public to know if the resources allocated to the military are being corruptly mismanaged, which is a responsibility for the media as the Constitution mandates the media to hold government, which includes its agencies, accountable at all times. This responsibility must, in our opinion, be discharged with all sense of seriousness that requires that information are properly verified before publishing to avoid misleading the public.
It is important to observe that false or insensitive reporting can only strengthen the terrorists against the Nigerian state and the citizens would be the worse for it. What is going on the North-East between the Army and Boko Haram is war, which requires that the terrorists are not given the incentive to win. War is a defence and security matter and reporting it must be carefully balanced with public interest since there are limits to which every single action of the military should be available in the public domain.
Those that cheer the social media to undermine national security, including those that fund them through grants and advertising, must take a second look at the larger damage being done to Nigeria. They are the ones that can demand that the online publications act within the bounds of reason.