Hebdo and Baga: a tale of two massacres

With the outrage surrounding the attacks on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, Katie Wand discusses the value western media outlets places on a human life in different parts of the world. Katie also considers how the narrative of Islamic extremists as solely against the West and not also against people of their own faith and cultural background is limiting and serves to feed growing Islamaphobia in the West.

Sunday, 11 January: a day of mourning in France, and across the western world, as thousands gathered in Paris, Edinburgh, London, Tel Aviv, Dhaka, and Delhi, to honour the lives of 17 French nationals killed in the tragic terror attacks in Paris. More than 40 of the world’s leaders flocked to Paris to show their respect, solidarity and unity with France, and to pledge that civil order would not succumb to terrorism.

Friday, 9 January: Boko Haram, an Islamist terrorist organisation that has wrought to establish a de facto caliphate in northern Nigeria, attacked the village of Baga. Most of the causalities were women, children, and the elderly. Reporters from Amnesty International hesitate to give an exact figure for the death toll, as there were simply ‘too many to count’ but estimates range to upwards of 2000. A further 30,000 people are thought to have been displaced as a result of the attacks.

Both these events occurred at the hands of Islamic extremists, both resulted in the loss of life.

Whereas those killed in Paris have been globally heralded as the martyrs of freedom of expression, the attacks in Nigeria were largely ignored by the press. The Charlie Hebdo attack alone generated 50 times more global media stories than the attack in Baga. The victims in Nigeria were not even deemed worthy, initially, of a clicktivist movement or a ‘hashtag of solidarity’.

©francediplomatie /Creative Commons License

©francediplomatie /Creative Commons License

Why is there such a vast imbalance in western media outlets’ coverage of the two attacks, and what does it signify?

Firstly, in rural Baga, access to the internet is scarce, this hinders the spread of news. Furthermore, journalists have been targeted in recent years by Boko Haram, possibly deterring others from reporting such an incident. A lack of internet and willing journalists in the area explains to some extent the initial delayed media response to the massacre. However, it is salient that even once the news did break, the media coverage remained strikingly underwhelming.

Of course, western developed liberal democracies share much with France: a similar political structure, economic ties, cultural heritage and an overlapping history. It is therefore understandable that western media outlets demonstrate a level of outrage to these vindictive attacks in Paris. However, Nigeria was a colony of the United Kingdom until as recently as 1960, providing a clear link between the two nations and, its new found position as the biggest economy in Africa has led to a growing interest from prospective global partners.

Objectively comparing the death tolls and the respective media coverage, one is confronted by the uncomfortable truth, that the disparity in media coverage lies in the discriminative nature of Western empathy that places higher value on the lives of Westerners than on those of Africans. The perceived worth of the lives lost in the Baga attack makes for a far less compelling story than an attack on French journalists.

Sadly, the notion that life is somehow cheaper in Africa is not unique to the West; the President of Nigeria sent his condolences to France over the Paris attacks, whilst somehow failing to acknowledge events that occurred in Nigeria that very day. It is tragic that human equality remains a utopian ideal rather than a tangible reality.

Institutional racism exacerbating islamaphobia

The lack of coverage of the Baga massacre has deep knock on effects outside of its racist tendencies. In failing to acknowledge events outside of the Western sphere, an incomplete and inaccurate picture of Islamic fundamentalism is painted. In focusing attentions on the attacks in Paris, especially those on Charlie Hebdo, the media is consolidating the growing divide between the West and the rest.

© European Commission DG ECHO /Creative Commons License

© European Commission DG ECHO /Creative Commons License

The selective media bias that ignores the impact of global jihad outside of the Western sphere distorts public understanding of Islamic extremism, and rouses the islamaphobic notion that Islam is at war with the West. However, in Baga, and in countless others casesthe victims were Muslims. Forgetting the Muslim causalities of Islamic extremism creates a misalignment whereby Islam, and hence its 1.6 billion followers, are posited as the ‘other’ against a backdrop of a Western prejudice.

Only once the global scale of Islamic fundamentalism and its victims is taken into consideration does it become clear that enemy lines lie not between East and West but between innocent civilians and the terror-inciting few. In drawing a line elsewhere, the media induces a generic typecast of all Muslims that is highly catalytic and serves to antagonize the very roots of religious extremism.

The first month of 2015 has seen Islamist terrorist attacks in Pakistan, the Philippines, Cameroon, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, France, and Nigeria. I suggest not that we downplay the tragedies that occurred in Paris, but simply that we pay homage to all those who have fallen victim to Islamic terrorism.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.

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