Nigeria’s Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr. Isa Ali Ibrahim Pantami, and his alleged support for global terrorism is the latest target of a media trial, complete with its own Twitter hashtag #PantamiResign.
The trial cycle started with the false alarm that the minister has been placed on a terrorism list by United States authorities, then turned into a retraction and apology, which fed into a twitter frenzy and gave rise to reports trawling through past sermons by the minister and culminating into a petition for the United States to presently put the minister on its terror watch list.
Pantami is being accused of sympathising with Boko Haram and actively supporting international terrorist organisations such as the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. The minister has denied the allegations and instructed his lawyers to take action.
The Daily Independent newspaper opened the salvo on April 11 by publishing an unsubstantiated report for which it has since issued an apology and retraction.
The report dubbed ‘Disquiet as America places Nigerian minister on watch list’ alleged that “America’s Intelligence Service” has placed Pantami on its watch list for his anti-American pro-jihadist beliefs and close alliance with Boko Haram founder, Muhammad Yusuf.
The paper credited “Western Intelligence” with linking Pantami with Al-Qaeda leaders and paying glowing tributes to them in YouTube videos. It also cited “Middle Eastern Intelligence” sources that photos of Pantami and his jihadist allies are trending.
Some online news sites and a number of Twitter users then regurgitated the claims with the NewswireNGR publishing an old video of Mr Pantami debating the ideologies of Boko Haram with its founder, Muhammad Yusuf, as evidence of their friendship.
A factcheck by Premium Times debunked both claims. In its verdict, the news site stated “There is no evidence that Mr Pantami is on the U.S. watch list for terrorism. The U.S. does not disclose those on the list. The source quoted by the platforms that published the report also does not exist. Meanwhile, the newspapers have now deleted their posts.
“Also, it is FALSE to claim that the debate between Mr Pantami and the late Yusuf was a friendly chat. It was a heated debate which has now formed the basis for scholarly research on the ideology of Boko Haram.”
In less than a week, both the Daily Independent and NewswireNGR retracted their stories and apologized to the minister.
According to an American-based Nigerian media scholar, Farooq Kperogi, the story was planted by telecommunications companies who have been suffering financially due to Mr Pantami’s directive suspending the registration of new SIM cards pending the completion of an audit of the Subscriber Registration Database.
Kperogi published in his blog “Notes from Atlanta” that at least two of his friends who are editors of Nigerian newspapers have confided to him that they received the story from telecommunications industry operators but refused to publish it due to its inherent legal problems.
None of the story publishers has reacted to this claim as of present. However, the alleged sponsors could be on to a winning strategy as two prominent news sites Peoples Gazette and Sahara Reporters took up the challenge of substantiating the allegations.
Peoples Gazette and Sahara Reporters dug up several lectures and sermons in both video and audio where they cited Pantami supporting terrorism. With headlines such as “We are all happy whenever unbelievers are being killed: Minister Pantami”, “I support terrorist groups like Taliban, Al-Qaeda, not Boko Haram: Minister Pantami”, as well as “Boko Haram terrorists are our Muslim brothers, shouldn’t be killed like pigs: Minister Pantami” Peoples Gazette presented Mr Pantami as a religious bigot and an active supporter of international terrorism.
Sahara Reporters followed the same track with the headline “I Support Terrorist Groups Like Taliban, Al-Qaeda, Not Boko Haram – Minister Pantami” and published an opinion article titled “Unmasking A Jihadi Masquerade: The Many Faces of Isa Ali Ibrahim Pantami.” Both the report and the opinion piece harped on the Islamic doctrines and preachings of Mr Pantami which they posited to be in tune with global terrorism.
Joining the bandwagon, a group called Concerned Nigerians convened by renowned activist Comrade Deji Adeyanju petitioned the United States Department of State to permanently place Mr Pantami on its terrorist watchlist. According to the petition, “Those who express extremist views remain a threat to world peace as they support mass murder of both Christians and Muslims globally. This remains unacceptable. Our reply to those who say these men may have had a change of heart is that terrorists don’t repent, they are only looking for an opportunity to get close to power so they can strike harder.”
The story trended on Twitter with #PantamiResign being countered with #PantamiWillStay. Like all such public debates in Nigeria, the issue has since degenerated into a North against South, Christian versus Muslim affair. Some of the anti-Pantami commentators are likening the issue to that of former minister of Finance Kemi Adeosun who was hounded out of office by the media for failing to participate in the National Youth Service Corps and obtaining a fake exemption certificate. Others express fears that the database of the National Identity Number (NIN) being supervised by Mr Pantami’s ministry could be transmitted to terrorists if the minister is indeed a sympathiser.
In his defense, the minister’s spokesperson, Uwa Suleiman, wrote that the media trial is the work of her principal’s detractors who have chosen to smear him using the sensitive topic of religion. According to her, “People only throw stones at a fruit-bearing tree. Again, I borrow a line from Margaret Thatcher; when they begin to attack you personally, then they have no single political argument left.”
Pantami also had an extensive interview with Premium Times, published on Friday, where he refuted all the allegations against him. He reiterated that this is an orchestrated media campaign by those opposed to the NIN/SIM linking policy of the Federal Government which is being executed by his ministry. He also denied being a supporter of terrorism, arguing that he led the ideological attack against Boko Haram during its infancy. The minister added that he was quoted out of context in the speeches he made during the 2000s.
As this media trial unfolds, some key issues need to be considered by all media practitioners and stakeholders in Nigeria.
Firstly, the original story was baseless and unsubstantiated. We need to ask why would media organizations publish unfound stories that they would later retract and apologize? Is it true as claimed by Kperogi that they were paid by some telecommunications operators to besmirch the name of the minister? If true, who is going to unmask these sponsors and punish the perpetrators?
Secondly, a multicultural and multi-lingual country like Nigeria needs diversity within its media landscape. NewswireNGR became a laughing stock among Hausa speakers when it presented a highly antagonistic debate as a friendly chat. This suggests that the medium has no Hausa speaker among its employees and was not willing to seek counsel from professional translators.
Thirdly, a very important question is whether or not a Nigerian citizen who held unpopular views in the past has the right to political office after recanting. This is because almost all moderate Muslims in Northern Nigeria used to blindly and ignorantly support Al-Qaeda and Taliban when they were operating internationally only to reject and repudiate their ideologies with the emergence of Boko Haram. It is indeed instructive that while Osama Bin Laden’s posters, stickers and T-shirts were popular items across Northern Nigeria in the 1990s, there was not a commensurate display of affection for ISIS or veneration of its leader Al-Baghdadiy.
Finally, the minister needs to come out and clearly state his ideological evolution concerning global terror networks and provide contextual information regarding his past utterances.