The same week that journalists in France were murdered by the Islamic State for depicting the Prophet Muhammad, Islamist militants of Boko Haram massacred the people of 16 villages and took control of the military outpost of Baga in northeastern Nigeria.
The staggering death toll is still under investigation. But you have probably heard very little of that story.Yes, while millions marched in the streets of Paris in an unprecedented expression of solidarity among Europeans, the eyes of the world watched with awe. Yet the media coverage of the Baga massacres was imprecise and characteristically short-lived.
Journalist Simon Allison poignantly sums up why this may be:
“It may be the 21st century, but African lives are still deemed less newsworthy — and by implication, less valuable — than Western lives.”
Cartoonists in Paris felt they had the right to express their dissent to a religious organization through a caricature of a religious leader. As a result, they were murdered. Baga citizens were killed for no reason, and what is left of their entire community is still smoldering. The casual indifference Western news organizations have towards events in Africa — celebratory or atrocious — is undeniable.
But, there are legitimate reasons why we heard of so little of the Baga massacres. The first is Boko Haram, which loosely translates to “Western education is forbidden,” doesn’t mind misinformation. On the contrary, they’ve been killing reporters and blowing up base transceiver stations so that misinformation stagnates and begins spreading a sickness of its own.
Second, Nigerians receive little help from their government.These attacks come a mere five weeks before presidential elections are held in Nigeria. But most politicians, especially President Goodluck Jonathan, express reluctance in addressing Boko Haram. Most of the information comes from traumatized refugees and unreliable government officials. For example, the reported death toll of 2,000 is a gross exaggeration.
CNN reports a local Baga government official could not explain how he arrived at the toll of 2,000. The Guardian reports local defense groups had given up counting the bodies left in the streets. Nigeria’s government disputed such a death toll and told the BBC it was closer to 150.
This tawdry obsession we’ve developed toward numbers and figures is becoming ludicrous and shameful. If 4,000 lives were lost in Nigeria, would the media coverage have been more consistent? Or, more importantly, would more people have spoken up about the lack of consistent coverage? Boko Haram has become a de facto state while everyone, including Nigeria’s leaders, look the other way.
We should be holding our news agencies to a higher standard of accountability. No one is going to do it for us.