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How journalists engage with the militants and military in covering extremist activity

This research demonstrates that journalists reporting on Boko Haram experience gatekeeping from strategic communicators acting for both the extremists and the armed forces

Journalists have a tense but interdependent relationship with strategic communicators that is characterised by conflict and cooperation, harassment and intimidation, according to new research by a City, University of London academic.

Dr Abdullahi Tasiu Abubakar’s research, using a case study of reporting on the Boko Haram conflict in Nigeria, has found that strategic communicators’ control of the conflict theatre and use of the internet to reach audiences give them direct leverage in the relationship with journalists.

The communicators, however, rely on journalists to help enhance the reach and credibility of their narratives, while journalists depend significantly on their media releases.

A Senior Lecturer in City’s Department of Journalism, Dr Abubakar drew the primary data of the study from focus groups and individual interviews with 32 journalists and strategic communicators, and from analysis of Boko Haram videos and Nigerian security forces’ press releases.

The report, entitled ‘Hostile Gatekeeping: The Strategy of Engaging with Journalists in Extremism Reporting’, is published in the latest volume of the Defence Strategic Communications journal.

It highlights the role of the internet in the changing nature of strategic communications, and in particular how it empowers both Boko Haram insurgents and the Nigerian armed forces.

The speed with which disinformation (deliberate spread of erroneous information), misinformation (accidental or unwitting spread of erroneous information) and hate speech can be spread in the internet by disinformation operators to “uncritical publics” creates tremendous challenges for journalists covering conflicts, the study says.

While the origins of strategic communications can be traced back to the 4th century BC and Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu, modern technology is helping terror groups to spread their propaganda to audiences like never before. This report demonstrates how Boko Haram has shown dexterity in this area.

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Formed in (2002?), initially as a peaceful movement, Boko Haram has become the deadliest terror group in Africa, whose insurgency is blamed for the death of over 30,000 people and the displacement of three million others in Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon over the last decade.

The group seems to thrive on violence and its members are accused of committing many atrocities including beheadings and mass executions. But what really caught the world media’s prolonged attention was their 2014 abductions of 276 Chibok schoolgirls.

The study suggests that one of the intentions of Boko Haram attacks is to attract media attention: “It is a component of their strategic communications campaign”.

Indeed, the group used the Chibok schoolgirls abductions to secure the release of some of their commanders and gain concessions from the Nigerian government.

But whether it is kidnappings or bombings or beheadings, such actions are partly carried out for the attention they will create.

The report also focuses on the tension between journalists and Boko Haram and the ‘gatekeeping’ role played by strategic communicators. It also shows how the relationship between journalists and the armed forces can often be just as challenging.

Journalists told Dr Abubakar that their relationship with the military was a mixture of cordiality, intimidation and harassment. One television reporter said: “They are unpredictable; they could be nice in one moment and antagonistic in another.”

And, when asked about dealing with journalists, one army public relations officer admitted: “Yes, I do ignore their calls sometimes and even get irritated by them.”

In June 2014, according to a Freedom House report, armed Nigerian soldiers seized and destroyed copies of several editions of newspapers from about ten media houses in the country. A military spokesperson described the measures as a “routine security action” to search for alleged contraband, but they were widely interpreted as reprisals for the coverage of the military’s faltering efforts against Boko Haram, says Freedom House.

The study concludes that there has been a power shift in the dynamics of the relationship between journalists and strategic communicators, with the power shifting from the former to the latter.

But this power shift does not end strategic communicators’ reliance on journalists to enhance the credibility of their narratives, which shows the continued value of journalists and is a sign that their relationship, despite its complexity, may nevertheless continue.

Dr Abubakar’s report also poses two questions for future study of the Boko Haram conflict:

·         How much does strategic communicators’ use of information subsidies (e.g. press releases) influence the media coverage of the Boko Haram insurgency?

·         To what extent has the media’s lack of access to the actual conflict zones affected our understanding of the crisis?

Read the paper

Hostile Gatekeeping: The Strategy of Engaging with Journalists in Extremism Reporting is published in Defence Strategic Communications, the official journal of the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence. The full paper can be read from page 51 in the PDF available for public download here.



Media enquiries:

Chris Lines, Senior Communications Officer, School of Arts & Social Sciences

T: +44 (0) 20 7040 3062 M: +44 (0) 7391 869 228 E: chris.lines@city.ac.uk


Notes for Editors

About City, University of London

City, University of London is a global higher education institution committed to academic excellence, with a focus on business and the professions and an enviable central London location.

City’s academic range is broadly-based with world-leading strengths in business; law; health sciences; mathematics; computer science; engineering; social sciences; and the arts including journalism and music.

City has around 20,000 students (46% at postgraduate level) from more than 160 countries and staff from over 75 countries.

In the last REF, City doubled the proportion of its total academic staff producing world-leading or internationally excellent research.

More than 140,000 former students from over 180 countries are members of the City Alumni Network.

The University’s history dates from 1894, with the foundation of the Northampton Institute on what is now the main part of City’s campus. In 1966, City was granted University status by Royal Charter and the Lord Mayor of London became its Chancellor. In September 2016, City joined the University of London and HRH the Princess Royal became City’s Chancellor.

Led by President, Professor Sir Paul Curran since 2010, City has made significant investments in its academic staff, its estate and its infrastructure and continues to work towards realising its vision of being a leading global university: it has recently agreed a new Vision & Strategy 2026.


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Updated: May 23, 2019 — 1:38 pm

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