Nigerian girls are released, news media say -- but most reports keep their religion hidden

Twenty-one of those kidnap victims in Nigeria have been returned to their parents -- a victory for that nation's government and for the alertness of mainstream media in this 30-month-long story.

What is not so alert is the recurring blindness of most media to the religious dimension of the conflict: the abduction of 276 schoolgirls, most of them Christian, by the jihadist gang known as Boko Haram.

We GetReligionistas have been giving very mixed reviews on the coverage. We've praised mainstream media for keeping an eye on the story, while criticizing the way they seem to dismiss the religious beliefs of captives and captors alike.

One (kind of) bright spot shines at the BBC, in its story on the 21 newly freed girls. The narrative conveys almost Passover-like imagery of deliverance from slavery:

One of the girls freed said during a Christian ceremony in Abuja: "I was... [in] the woods when the plane dropped a bomb near me but I wasn't hurt.
"We had no food for one month and 10 days but we did not die. We thank God," she added, speaking in the local Hausa language.
Many of the kidnapped students were Christian but had been forcibly converted to Islam during captivity.
Another girl said: "We never imagined that we would see this day but, with the help of God, we were able to come out of enslavement."
One parent said: "We thank God. I never thought I was going to see my daughter again but here she is... Those who are still out there - may God bring them back to be reunited with their parents."

Strong clues indeed about the faith of the girls and their families. The story would have been stronger still if the BBC had detailed the occasion for the reporting. The article says only that it was during a "Christian ceremony" in Abuja, the national capital. Wish they'd said what kind of ceremony, and who performed it. (It was a church service, as you'll see in a bit.)

Even better would have been for BBC to note that Chibok, the families' hometown, is in northeastern Nigeria -- a heavily Muslim region and the main war zone for the fight against Boko Haram.

BBC actually came late to the story. The Associated Press rushed out an update back on Thursday, when the release took place. But that piece strips nearly all religious content from the story. It mainly includes details of the release, saying how many of the girls "appeared malnourished, their clothes hanging loosely over their bony frames."

A point to AP, at least, for reminding us of the international outcry against the mass kidnapping and the campaign to publicize the girls' plight:

"We are extremely delighted and grateful," said the Bring Back Our Girls movement, which campaigned in Nigeria and internationally for the release of the girls, most of whom were teenagers when they were seized in April 2014 from their school in the northeastern town of Chibok.
"We thank the federal government and, like Oliver Twist, we ask for more," said Hauwa Biu, an activist in Maiduguri, the capital of northeastern Borno state and the birthplace of Boko Haram.

Ironic, isn’t it? This 1,000-word article, with three writers, manages to work in a reference to Oliver Twist, but it can't name the religion of the captive girls.

Still, the piece is miles ahead of the Washington Post, although that newspaper's report just came out this afternoon. The Post details the release and reunion. It strings together photos and videos on the story. And it adds a bit on prospects for finding the other 197 captives still believed to be alive. Nothing on the religious angle, except to mention that the reunion took place during a church service.

The Post's main contribution is explaining why so many follow-up stories are appearing today: "The girls were released Thursday and flown to Abuja, the capital, but it has taken days for the parents to arrive from Chibok."

None of these articles expose the nature of Boko Haram as a backward extremist Islamist group. AP barely hints at it, saying that its strongman, Abubakar Shekau, was deposed by the Islamic State group. It also translates "Boko Haram" as "Western education is forbidden," although our tmatt has said the term actually means "Books Are Forbidden." Where did he get that translation? From a BBC backgrounder -- which is neither mentioned nor linked in the BBC's current article.

CNN, too, aired an early report on the girls' release -- again, with only the barest suggestion of the religious extremism behind their original abduction. It says Boko Haram is an "Islamist militant group," then adds: "The terror group, which pledged allegiance to ISIS in March 2015, aims to impose a stricter enforcement of Sharia law across Africa's most populous nation, which has a Christian-majority south and a Muslim-majority north."

The religion of the girls themselves? You'd never know from that report.

That's a pity because, as CNN itself points out, the network has tracked the story since it broke. A CNN reporter took a crew to Chibok just after the kidnap in April 2014 and talked to the women there.

But CNN's longterm coverage has always shown some holes. On the one-year anniversary of the abduction, it said that some of the girls, "it is feared, may have been raped, brutalized, enslaved and forced to convert to Islam." Converted from what? Doesn't say.

All the above is, of course, the reason for specialized media like CBN. Founder Pat Robertson may be long past his prime, but the news outfit he founded produced its own report on the release of the Chibok girls. It also bluntly called Boko Haram an "Islamic extremist group."

But I want to leave a bottom line of praise for mainstream media in staying with this story -- especially with other major stories, like the launch of China's newest manned space launch and the long-awaited battle to retake Mosul from ISIS. And with 197 of the Chibok girls still unaccounted for, the media will have lots of opportunities for more follow-up.

Thumb: Screenshot from a Reuters video, via


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