The federal government Thursday attributed the reports of a massacre during the Lekki shootings by security operatives to those it described as “purveyors of fake news.”
The Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, while addressing a press conference in Abuja, said there was no massacre in Lekki on October 20.
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He said the incident could either be a “social media massacre or at best massacre without bodies.”
He also tackled the Cable News Network (CNN), saying the media organisation should be sanctioned for “misinformation and irresponsible reporting of the October 20 Lekki shootings.”
However, the US-based media outfit fired back saying it stood by its report of the Lekki incident and that it compiled its details after conducting a thorough investigation including talking to relevant people.
The CNN had in its report detailed what transpired at Lekki in which it said at least one person was killed and several others injured.
The TV network also said it made all attempts to get the side of the federal government to no avail.
‘CNN should be sanctioned’
Lai Mohammed at the press conference on Thursday called for sanctions against CNN, describing its report as “one-sided and relied heavily on unverified/possibly doctored videos.”
“Like everyone else, I watched the CNN report. I must tell you that it reinforces the disinformation that is going around, and it is blatantly irresponsible and a poor piece of journalistic work by a reputable international news organisation.
“CNN engaged in incredible sensationalism and did a great disservice to itself and journalism. In the first instance, CNN, which touted its report as an exclusive investigative report, sadly relied on the same videos that have been circulating on social media, without verification. This is very serious and CNN should be sanctioned for that.
“CNN merely said the videos were ‘obtained by CNN’ without saying wherefrom and whether or not it authenticated them. Were CNN reporters and cameramen at the Lekki Toll Gate that evening?
“If the answer is no, on what basis were they reporting? Relying on second or third-hand information and presenting it as ‘CNN Investigation?’ Why didn’t the CNN balance its story by showing the compelling testimony of Brig. Gen. Taiwo before the Judicial Panel in Lagos?
“Is this one-sided reporting what is expected from an international media organisation or any serious news organisation? If CNN had done its investigation properly, it would have known how fake news and disinformation were trending during the EndSARS crisis,” he said.
According to him, “In airing its so-called investigative report, CNN conveniently forgot that on Oct. 23rd, 2020, it tweeted, from its verified Twitter handle, that the military killed 38 people when it opened fire on peaceful protesters on Tuesday, Oct. 20th, 2020. Less than a month later, the same CNN, in what it called an exclusive report based on a rehash of old, unverified videos, was only able to confirm that one person died in the same incident.
On the kind of sanctions he wanted against CNN, he said the organisation should use its internal mechanism to punish its erring staff; while the Nigerian government would also do the needful.
We stand by our story – CNN
But in its counter of the minister’s press conference, a CNN spokesperson said they would not retract what they reported.
“Our reporting was carefully and meticulously researched, and we stand by it,” the spokesperson said.
“The report was based on testimony from dozens of witnesses, and photos and video obtained and geolocated by CNN. It painted a picture of how members of the Nigerian Army and the police shot at the crowd, killing at least one person and wounding dozens more.
“CNN verified photos and videos acquired from multiple eyewitnesses and protesters using timestamps and other data from the video files. Video footage shows soldiers who appear to be shooting in the direction of protesters. And accounts from eyewitnesses established that after the army withdrew, the second round of shooting happened later in the evening.
“Before publishing the report, CNN tried multiple times to elicit comment from the Nigerian Army and police. A Lagos State police spokesman declined to comment because of an ongoing investigation. While a statement from the Lagos State government said that there would be no comment while a judicial tribunal was underway.
“CNN also included comments from army representative, Brigadier Ahmed Taiwo, testifying before the tribunal. He denied that soldiers would shoot at Nigerian citizens,” the statement said.
How CNN reported the incident
A review of the CNN report by the Daily Trust showed that in the investigation released on November 18, CNN found that on October 20, the Nigerian Army vehicle that headed for the scene of the peaceful protest at Lekki, Lagos left the Bonny Garrison in Lagos, around 6.29 pm. The international media group said that around 6.43 pm, the soldiers began to fire gunshots at the protesters, which lasted till 8.24 pm.
CNN said using media tools, it verified and geolocated videos of gunshots victims lying at the scene and people attempting CPR on them.
It also said it verified ammunition picked at the scene, which military sources confirmed to it are still in use by the Nigerian military. The report explained that the ammunition such as NNY 2005 were Serbian made.
CNN said it teamed up with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network and obtained Serbian export documents, which established that the ammunition, like other weapons, were purchased by the Nigerian government in 2005 and that it had done so every year between 2005 and 2016.
The US-based media house also detailed the accounts of over 100 witnesses and survivors, many of whom it said were on the run, who confirmed they heard gunshots first from the army and later in the night from the members of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS).
It interviewed a family member of one of the victims of the attack, Elisha Ibanga, whose brother Victor, 27, was said to have been killed at the scene.
Elisha confirmed he received a call from a stranger who informed him that his brother has been shot at Lekki. He said the family has not been able to find the corpse.
Lai tongue-lashed ‘fake news’ purveyors
Apart from tackling the CNN, Lai Mohammed said the purveyors of fake news and disinformation succeeded in deceiving the world into believing that there were mass killings in Lekki “even when, till date, not a single body has been produced and not a single-family or relative has come out to say their child or ward was killed at Lekki.”
He said the testimony of Brig. Gen. Ahmed Taiwo before the judicial panel in Lagos was compelling and had revealed that there was no use of live ammunition by soldiers.
“More surprising and irresponsible is the fact that some people have been calling for sanctions against Nigeria or Nigerian government officials based on a hoax. This is one of the dangers of fake news and disinformation. Once fake news is out, many run with it, without looking back, even when the truth is eventually revealed.
“We, therefore, want to use this opportunity to ask those who have alleged massacre at the Lekki Toll Gate to go to the judicial panel to present their evidence to the world or simply admit that they have goofed,” he said.
Social media must be regulated
The minister also said there was no going back on moves to regulate the social media space in the country, noting, however, that the government had no plan to shut down the social media space as being misconstrued in some quarters.
Reacting to the federal government’s insistence on regulating the social media, the National Coordinator of the Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria (HURIWA), Emmanuel Onwubiko, in a telephone interview with one of our correspondents, described it as “horrendous.”
Onwubiko said, “The consistent and horrendous attack against media freedom as carried out by the person who has been appointed as the Minister of Information and Culture, Mr Lai Mohammed, has shown that he is grossly incompetent, he is not fit, he is not a proper person to hold such a very important platform in the cabinet office of Mr President.
“The person who ought to pilot the affairs of the ministry of information and culture ought to be professionally competent in the area of media practice.
“But this one remains antagonistic against media freedom. He doesn’t seem to understand the fundamentals of constitutional democracy. If anybody feels that a speech or a publication were against him or his interests, there are institutions that are created by law to deal with that,” he said.