How To Communicate in Times of Crises, By Elnathan John

To create is divine and to destroy is human. You did not cause this. You are keenly aware that the history of man is the history of one crisis after another. Your country is no exception. So there is no need to be unusually perturbed as a politician when there is a crisis in the country. This is the way of the world. And a country without crisis is a boring country.

As a government official this is how you must conduct yourself when suddenly you hear that Christians and Muslims have started killing each other.

One thing you must be careful with is truth. Truth is like a sharp, doubled-edged knife. It can be an impressive tool for cutting things into precise shapes, or can be a mean tool of destruction or even a self destructive thing, hurting the bearer beyond expectation. So you must be careful. Not everyone deserves truth or can use it. Withhold it for as long as you can. Sometimes the flip side of the truth is not a lie, but useful, responsible silence. So when journalists come asking questions during a crisis, you must treat them with suspicion for you cannot be certain whose agents they are. Many a journalist is an unwitting agent of the enemy. You give them truth and they stab you with it. You must try as much as possible not to respond to official inquiries for information whether brought pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act or any similar law that is subject to abuse by journalists. You must never feel guilty about this. It is the same as refusing to give a toddler a knife to play with. The toddler will cry and stomp its feet. But you know you are doing right by that toddler.

Especially when there is violent conflict, you must never, ever, provide accurate figures of those who have died. The reason is simple: You do not want anybody getting angry and threatening or carrying out reprisals. As much as you can control it, you must prevent journalists from taking pictures at the scene.

It is important to claim that all is well. Some good books say that ‘death and life are in the power of the tongue’. I will add that peace and conflict are in the power of a press release. Unless you have had to impose a curfew, you must use phrases like, ‘normalcy is fast returning’, and ‘people are going about their normal activities’.

Being a reporter during a time of crisis can be confusing. My rule has always been, when in doubt say the opposite of what government says. It is sufficient to make a few calls after which you can publish unverified information. There is that phrase that cures all known defects in a report and you must learn how to use it: “All attempts to reach so-and-so for comment proved abortive.”

When people make inflammatory statements, you must never apply too much scrutiny to it. You are a journalist, not their mother or a man of God. Your job is just to report. Sometimes you will hear of journalists in a crisis situation being selective and choosing not to report certain things. That is playing God and God forbid that you play God. You are a messenger and a messenger is not concerned about the contents of the envelope, only that the envelope reaches its intended destination. A typical example of what you must avoid is how some journalists who covered the crises between the IRA and the British government. Some of them decided not to report every single bombing that took place especially when there was no casualty. And what excuse did they give for such irresponsibility? That terrorism is all about spreading terror and that they would not report every single attempt at creating such terror. How presumptuous! May such bad behaviour never be mentioned among you.

Report every case of bombings, even the failed attempts. People need to know all the activities of the terrorists. If a bag was found abandoned in a public building and there is a bomb threat which turns out to be innocuous, you are allowed to use bold headlines like “Bomb Scare in Ikeja”. You are reporting it as it is, and that is what a good journalist should be- accurate.

There is no need to work alongside government when there is an outbreak of violence. If you wanted to be involved in the politics of things, you would have contested for office.

Very importantly however, life is for the living. Leave real-time conflict reporting to foreign journalists. It is wrong to want to actually cover a violent crises or war. That is what phones and texts and emails are for, even though sometimes the government may cut off phone lines in the area. Taking the next flight or bus to Maiduguri whether as an embedded journalist with soldiers or otherwise is not journalism. It is foolishness. People should be patient, they will hear about it after the fighting is over.

Where there is an explosion do not fail to suggest that it might be a bomb. The facts might be hazy but it is important for people to know that they might be dealing with a bomb there. Where there is an explosion you can help a militant group like Boko Haram take responsibility by writing it such a way that suggests it had to be them. The rule is simple, report first, verify later. It is not your fault that government won’t respond quickly with the right information.

To spice it all up, never forget to splash photos of the bodies of victims and wounded people in your paper because they say, a picture they say is worth more than a thousand reports.

And you, the blessed NGO, whom God has elevated to the position of savior of your brothers- you have a special place in all of this. You must be on your toes, ready to publish a press release when there seems to be any case of human rights violation or whatever other type of violation you have told your funders you will monitor. It may not always be necessary to thoroughly examine the event that has just occurred. Nuance is a waste of energy. You don’t want your funders to think you are sloppy, being the last to condemn a thing. Edit one of your other press releases. Do not fail to use the words ‘condemn in the strongest terms’. Do not fail to make a demand. For someone’s resignation or unconditional release. Your funders will be happy. And you will make heaven.

As a Christian or Muslim organisation, your role in a time of crisis is really simple. You must remember your calling and the people you represent. When violent crisis breaks out with members of another religion, you must begin by claiming that your people suffered more casualties and that you will not accept this. Do not mention members of the other religion who died. They do not matter. They may not even make heaven. Say that you would no longer fold your  arms and watch these criminal killings continue. Add that if the government doesn’t immediately do something, you may be forced to look for your own solutions. Where possible circulate videos and photos of the bodies of your brethren who were slaughtered by members of the other religion. Do not talk about any reprisals your own people have carried out.

Communication is important during a crisis. With these tips, together, whether as government, journalists, NGO’s or faith based organisations, I am sure that we can succeed, and that God, seeing our hearts, will bless our hustle.

Mr. Elnathan John is one of the four shortlisted authors for the 2013 Caine Prize for African Writing for his short story “Bayan Layi,” published in Issue 25 of Per Contra.  He read this satirical piece last Tuesday at the just concluded Responsibility to Report Seminar in Abuja.  It is published by permission of the author.


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