I write with a heavy heart about the twin tragic incidents in Nigeria, the crash of Bellview Airlines Flight 210 which led to the premature death of 117 persons. Tragic also best describes the sudden death of Mrs. Stella Obasanjo, wife of our number one citizen.
There was, expectedly, confusion after the air disaster. This is understandable. Expected and understandable are words that I have carefully chosen because it is rather universal for humans to react to accidents or disasters in panic and some confusion. This is a universal human phenomena and human condition.
After the Bellview crash which occurred at night time, it took the federal agencies several hours to locate the site of the plane’s impact, until it was said to have been discovered in the town of Lisa by a television station.
Nigeria broadcasting regulatory body, the Nigerian Broadcasting Commission (NBC) promptly issued a press release and subsequently banned AIT/Raypower broadcasting company for airing the gory pictures of burnt and mutilated human remains from the air crash. The closure or shutdown of AIT was probably an overreaction, but having said that, we must also say that the broadcasting of burnt mutilated bodies was an egregious act on the part of AIT and others who may have engaged in such indecent and undignified act.
How would anyone like to see the charred remains of his father, his mother, or uncle or cousin or friend or co-worker on television? What is the voyeuristic newsworthiness in the body parts displayed on screen by AIT and perhaps, by other broadcasters?
I am an advocate of Press Freedom. I believe in the right of the citizens to know. I support the pending bill at our national assembly that will hopefully be transformed into the Freedom of Information Act. I abhor censorship. But reckless journalism is also injurious.
The NBC sanctions against AIT was not motivated by censorship. Instead, it was motivated by purely genuine outrage felt by the people at NBC and perhaps, as must have been felt as well, by a majority of Nigerians who were horrified by the broadcast of gory pictures of disintegrated body parts from the bloodied and burned passengers on Bellview flight 210.
I have always personally complained about American and European Media Houses and the coverage of crises and tragedies in Nigeria and all of Africa that they provide, where the picture or outlook is painted as if to say, “it could not get worse than this anywhere”, or to say, “this is an only in Africa moment” This attitude was recently repeated in the American Press coverage of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Louisiana where there was a different sort of coverage and spin, depending on whether the Hurricane victim was a White or Black person. Whites were portrayed as looking for food and found food, while Blacks who equally looked for found and found food, were portrayed as looters of the food that they found, just as their counterparts in the after-Hurricane desperations. But the Whites were not referred to as looters!
In the name of press freedom in Nigeria, we must not thrash decency and dignity. We must not abandon our culture that dictates respect for the dead, and this is in fact not particularly an African thing. I have been living in the United States for decades now, and it is my experience here in America, that when a person dies, whether in the hospitals or on the sidewalks of streets and avenues, the Americans are quick to supply blankets or some sorts of cover for the dead person’s body or at least the dead’s face.
Here in America, such dead person does not even have to be mutilated or burnt or look gory, just that the person is now a corpse, and the body is quickly covered. The dead person could be rich, poor or even a homeless street vagrant, the same process is undertaken to give the dead some respect, dignity and somewhat a decent end.
To that extent, it does not speak well of Nigerian citizens and governments that dead bodies are allowed to remain in Nigerian streets uncovered, and sometimes, corpses are actually neglected in public space until such corpses start to decompose! Now, I understand that the remains of flight 210 passengers have not been retrieved, several days after the deadly crash. That is a complete shame.
NEMA, the Police, the Airforce, Navy, Army, NRSC and other security forces ought to be empowered to do search and rescue operations, on land, at sea or by air. Nigeria needs more ambulances to do these things and Nigeria also needs ample supply of body bags or coffins available at every of our 774 local government areas and Abuja. Nigerians should not allow bodies to rot in the streets or any public space. Any dead Nigerian citizen deserves better than such nonchalant abandonment or wanton neglect at life’s end. How we treat our poor and our dead, is the sum total of how we value ourselves as Nigerians. This is an area that I am convinced Nigerians can learn from the Americans.
Has any Nigerian seen body parts of the more than 3,000 that were killed in the World Trade Center in New York City on September 11, 2001? I live in New York City and I never saw a body part of any of the 3,000 dead at the WTC on television or newspapers. And yet, it is unarguable that there are more television broadcasters and more newspapers in America, particularly in New York City, known as the financial and news capital of the world. New York City boasts of all news media of the world represented here. Do some Nigerians actually suppose that is because there are no daring and scoop loving television and newspaper journalists in America?
Have Nigerians seen pictures of dead American soldiers in the Iraqi and Afghan wars? Is this because there are no television stations in America or there are no cameras? As at today, October 26, 2005, 2000 American soldiers have been killed in Iraq alone and there are no pictures of the dead or injured Americans who serve in the military.
Do Nigerians care why journalists were embedded in American current wars, and not allowed to roam free? Publish and be damned and all? American military industrial complex carefully selected journalists from both print and electronic medias and trained these journalist for several months before the American invasion and occupation of Iraq, and t
hese journalists, become what was known as the embedded journalists, whose reporting were filtered and or orchestrated, so that our trusted sources such as The New York Times, the BBC, the VOA only reported to America and the world what has been approved and allowed by the American federal government and its military commanders!
When some American soldiers and civilians were displayed on television by the insurgents in Iraq, American government protested outrage, and when American soldiers killed Saddam Hussein’s two sons, Uday and Qusay, and circulated their heavily mangled bodies, the average American was appalled and complained. There were also complaints from outside the United Sates as well, even though Saddam Hussein and his sons were nobody’s favorites.
During the tragic Hurricane Katrina disaster, the American Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was grossly inept and incompetent or just nonchalant, but even so, it strived to contain the broadcast of pictures from the scenes of the horrendous disaster, FEMA actually sent out a memo, demanding that press houses refrained from publishing pictures of the dead and dying
Why have the Americans taken all these steps to protect and prevent the broadcast of pictures, gory pictures of dead Americans in the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, in Pennsylvania, or the pictures of dead American soldiers in the wars of Afghanistan and Iraq? Have Nigerians seen dead and dying Americans from these wars? Do Nigerians know why that is? Do Nigerians even care?
So, why must we demean ourselves and or our dead by displaying disintegrated burnt body parts on television during break fast or dinner times? Why is it now not enough to show the crash site, the wreckage, but without showing the bleeding and or burnt human remains? What is so newsworthy in that? What is the demonstration of press freedom in that?
AIT should be reprimanded and fined, if there is such rule in Nigeria. AIT should not be banned or closed; AIT or any overzealous journalist should be sanctioned, not arrested or banned! We must use due process and always have recourse to the rule of law.
NCC should prescribe fines, perhaps huge fines in cases where hunting for scoops offends public decency/morality or taste, and what is appropriate, whatever the community or national standards are determined to be, by Nigeria. But closing down AIT or any press/media house sounds heavy-handed and arbitrary; And Nigeria may because of it receive bad press as Nigeria may be painted or portrayed as hostile to free press.
It was my intention to plead that the ban be lifted, but since the ban has actually been lifted already, it is instead, suggested that there ought to be a fine, just so, everyone is on notice what the law and rules are, so that, next time, NBC can impose a fine if there is a breach of the rules. Nigerians and the world understand pocket-book politics…and AIT or other broadcasters would not want to lose money and of course, they will comply with such rules that require some circumspection in news reporting and that is not inconsistent with Nigeria’s National Interests, National security, or purpose, including the mundane matters of decency and dignity for our dead and the all important concept and ideal of free press in Nigeria.