Monday, May 12, 2014

#Bring BackOurGirls fills void left by sluggish press


International celebrities like Malala joined the Twitter campaign.
On April 15, the press dutifully reported what they saw as  just another ho-hum horror story out of Africa—this time a kidnapping in Nigeria. This story wasn’t ignored, but it was presented as one more chapter in the same African narrative—a one-dimensional tale told ad naseum about African poverty and disease and violence.

This time, however, there was an outcry against media indifference on this story. Through several online outlets, the international community sent the media an unequivocal message. That message—that the kidnapping of the Nigerian schoolgirls must be publicized to pressure officials into acting to free the girls.

It all started with a Twitter hashtag campaign aimed at shining the spotlight on the kidnapping of the Nigerian schoolgirls. The hashtag “Bring Back Our Girls” has been retweeted almost two million times, according to the Wall St. Journal online, which notes that Twitter users like the Vatican, Michelle Obama, and celebrities like Mary J. Blige and Chris Brown have joined the campaign. The BBC reports the hashtag started after an April 23 event where Dr. Oby Ezekwesili, the Vice President of the World Bank for Africa, addressed the crowd, demanding the release of the girls and saying, “Bring back the girls!” Later, Amnesty International created a Tumblr page for #BringBackOurGirls to raise awareness. There is also a Change.org petition, and in Nigeria and cities across the world there have been rallies demanding action. (bbc.com)

Conservative columnist George Will, among others, sneered at the hashtag campaign. On Fox News Sunday, he said, “I do not know how adults stand there, facing a camera and say, ‘Bring back our girls,’” Will continued. “Are these barbarians in the wilds of Nigeria supposed to check their Twitter accounts and say, ‘Oh, Michelle Obama’s very cross with us, we better change our behavior?’” He continued, “Power is the ability to achieve intended effects…This is not intended to have any effect on the real world.”

No one is na├»ve enough to believe that the Boko Haram kidnappers will see a few online pleas and have a change of heart about releasing the girls. But what the hashtag campaign has done is to place a spotlight squarely on the kidnapping. #BringBackOurGirls been an important component in increasing the pressure to do something to free the girls.  Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan pledged recently to do “everything possible” to find the girls and has asked for international assistance. Both the US and UK are offering assistance in the case. (Boston.com).

Would offers of assistance from the US and UK have occurred without the glare of “do something” publicity? Would the Nigerian government be operating with such dispatch if their every action weren’t under such intense international scrutiny? It’s impossible to say with precision, but equally impossible to imagine that becoming an international cause celebre won’t increase the girls’ chances for rescue.

It’s also important to note that the hashtag campaign wouldn’t have been needed if the international media hadn’t initially responded to the kidnapping with sluggish indifference. In the two weeks after the kidnapping on April 15 (April 15-29), a Google News search of “Nigeria kidnapping” found 841 articles on the incident. The hashtag campaign began April 22, and, according to Twitter statistics, really began to pick up steam around the first of May. A second Google News search for May 1 to May 8 revealed 10,037 articles on the kidnapping. While we can’t definitively link the Twitter campaign to the exponential increase in press coverage, it’s eminently logical to conclude that the press picked up on the public’s growing interest in the story, and responded with more comprehensive coverage.

Journalists, and especially peace journalists, have a responsibility to give a voice to the voiceless, to shine the spotlight of publicity on individuals and causes that may otherwise remain silent. Since the international journalism community gave the story only cursory coverage in the first weeks after the kidnapping, the international online community stepped in, shaming media into finally giving proportionate coverage to what should have been the lead story worldwide since April 15.

The next time something like this happens in a place like Nigeria, wouldn’t it be nice to see media leading the way instead of following?

--Follow me on Twitter @PeaceJourn--

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