Nigeria is widely known for its free and vibrant media. Nigerian journalists are acclaimed to be diligent in criticizing the government and in covering sensitive issues. However, when it comes to reporting religious and paranormal claims, particularly claims of witchcraft and demonic possession, Nigerian media are often found wanting because the critical component is often missing. In fact, there is a clear lack of reasonable journalism in the country’s print and broadcast media. By reasonable journalism, I mean writing and broadcasting news in ways that are informed by fair, sensible and sound judgment.
I am using the recently reported case of a ‘flying wizard’ by the Independent Television in Benin to illustrate my point. According to this report, a middle-aged man who was found naked in a church compound was alleged to be a wizard. Workers at the City Gate church in Benin City were shocked to find him inside the premises of the church because the gates were locked. They concluded that the man was a wizard because they believed he accessed the compound mysteriously!
The reporter interviewed the founder of the church, Prophet Ojo Agge, who confirmed that the man was on a ‘spiritual flight’ and doing spiritual battle in the area before he crashed and landed in the church compound. Other church members who spoke to the reporter also said that the man was a wizard who was being used by some spiritual forces. The reporter later interviewed the alleged wizard who claimed spirits spoke to him while he was flying over the area and led him into the compound, though the gates were locked. He said his crashing into the church premises was a work of God. The reporter went ahead to broadcast this story based on the accounts of the pastors, his church members and the so-called flying wizard. There was no indication that he made efforts to get a wide range of views on the subject.
Obviously, the reporter failed in his duty to uphold the principles of reasonable and responsible journalism. From the report, there was no indication at all that the journalist tried to cross check the information he was given to ensure that it was accurate and factual. I mean why didn’t the reporter probe further into the counterintuitive claim that the man was on a spiritual flight before he crashed and landed in the compound? Do human beings fly spiritually? Why didn’t he try to find out other ways the man could have used to gained access to the compound including jumping in through the fence or the possibility that the alleged witch might have connived with the prophet and founder of the church, who opened the gate for him in the night in order to forge this strange and mysterious ‘incident’?
Why didn’t the reporter query the claim that the man allegedly flew spiritually and then landed materially in the compound? Why didn’t the reporter solicit the views of psychologists and psychiatrists given that the alleged wizard was going about naked and was hearing the voices of ‘spirits’? The reporter should have added a critical element to the story given that the flying wizard had no physical wings that could enable him to fly.
It is often said that stories have many sides. Unfortunately, this story like most paranormal accounts in the Nigerian media has one side and the journalist presented only that one side which attributed this incident to witchcraft even when other more plausible sides and explanations exist as to how the man could have physically gained access to the church compound.
There have been similar reports in the Nigerian media of witches stealing pregnancies or people’s stars. There are stories of women who transformed into cats or birds, people who died and later resurrected. All sorts of stories that are incompatible with reasonable media. Such reports are rampant in the Nigerian media nowadays and are often presented without critical perspectives. Journalists seldom add a rational skeptical voice to their accounts or try and balance or put them into contexts. These stories are filled with errors, inaccuracies and misinformation that never get retracted or corrected.
For instance, it was once reported that the Nigerian police arrested a goat in Ilorin Kwara state. The story was that the goat was a car thief who turned into a goat to avoid being apprehended by members of a vigilante group. There was never any follow-up report to correct the mistaken notion that a human being turned into a goat.
Reports of purportedly mysterious and supernatural ‘happenings’ are presented in a manner that reinforces existing counterintuitive and superstitious notions and compromises the principles of responsible and reasonable journalism. We cannot expect to achieve a rational society without a rational media establishment that presents religious and paranormal issues in a fair and sensible manner. We cannot hope to realize a weakening of witchcraft beliefs with irresponsible, unreasonable and sensational media practices. At a time of growing concern about the harmful effects of witchcraft beliefs and imputations in Africa, journalists need to understand the importance of balanced, accurate and fact-based reporting of religious and paranormal claims to the cause of Nigerian, nay African enlightenment.