Press Freedom At War in Ebonyi

These are really bad times for the Governor of Ebonyi State, Dave Umahi, as he is making the news for very terrible reasons. The magnitude of damage these narratives would do to the governor’s image can only be appreciated from the perspective of the fact that this is a governor being praised as the best performing governor in the South East (and correctly so) and one of the best in the entire country. But with the barrage of knocks against him by several groups in the country over his recent stance against journalists and press freedom, the governor has just shot himself in the foot and gotten entangled in one of the worst challenges good leaders never wish for themselves. Here’s the story;

The story

On Wednesday, April 22, Governor Umahi had a statewide live broadcast aired on the State’s broadcast stations, during which he announced that he had banned two reporters for life from the state government house. The two reporters are Mr Chijioke Agwu of The Sun and Mr Peter Okutu of Vanguard Newspapers covering Ebonyi State for their respective organizations. Umahi said he was displeased with the leadership of Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), for failing to discipline their members.

The governor, had a week before this broadcast, ordered the arrest of Mr Agwu over a report he did on the Lassa Fever outbreak in the state. Three days later, Mr Okutu was arrested on the orders of Ohaukwu LGA Chairman, Clement Odah, over a report he did on the alleged military invasion of Umuogodoakpu-Ngbo community in the council area. Both Journalists were later released.

The most disturbing aspect of this story is not that the governor banned the journalists for life but the comments he made during the broadcast against practice of journalism in the state. It was more like handing over the life of reporters in the state to ‘unknown mob’ who can harm any reporter in the guise of unfavourable stories about the state. Here’s what Umahi further said in the broadcast;

“I want to say that I am very displeased with the president and leadership of the Nigeria Union of Journalists and I am going to seize their allowances for two months because they have failed to discipline their members. Ebonyi State is no longer a dumping ground. Only the other day, Chijioke Agwu (referring to The Sun Correspondent) wrote that Lassa Fever is killing Ebonyi people in droves and (a) few days back, Mr Peter Okutu of Vanguard did his own. Okutu is fond of degrading Ebonyi State, and I don’t know why my officials have allowed him to continue to do that, because he is not from Ebonyi State. I want to ban him for life with Chijioke Agwu. I don’t want to see them anywhere in any Government facility. We are not begging you to give us good report, because the only person that gives good or bad report is God. We are all accountable to him. If you think that Ebonyi State is a dumping ground, try it again.

“If you think you have the pen, we have the koboko. Let’s leave the court alone. Ebonyi people are very angry with the press and let me warn that I won’t be able to control them or know when they unleash mayhem on you, if you continue to write to create panic in the state.

“I want you to write it that way, that I said, press in Ebonyi is trying to create another COVID that is more dangerous and that is to create panic in our people. The other one wrote that cholera has killed 20 people in Ohaukwu. If you try it again, I may not know when Ebonyians may react. This is important for the NUJ to know. If you are an Ebonyi man or live in Ebonyi and you don’t feel our pains, it is a shame on you. Maybe, the press people claim they are untouchable. I have reported to the National President of NUJ, I have reported to (the) State leadership of NUJ and I have reported to the public. Now, the die is cast. May God save us, in this time,” he said.

These are unbelievable words coming from a governor in a modern democracy, irrespective of his performance in office. Here is someone saddled with the responsibility of protecting you saying he can no longer guarantee your safety. This is just a subtle way of saying “watch your back.”

Wrong damage control

A day after Governor Umahi barred the two journalists from entering the State House for life during a live broadcast at the new Government House, Abakaliki, his media aide, Mr. Francis Nwaze, debunked the decision of his boss. The broadcast which the SA on Media and Publicity denied, was actually televised live, and uploaded via YouTube and other online platforms.

The statement signed by Francis Nwaze, Special Assistant Media and Publicity to the Governor said: “My attention has been drawn to the news and a purportedly doctored audio and video making the rounds on social and print media alleging that the governor banned Chijioke Agwu and Peter Okutu of Daily Sun newspapers and Vanguard newspapers respectively for life for publishing false reports.”

Imagine that; the SA on Media and Publicity referred to the live broadcast as “doctored audio and video”. Had it been the stories existed only on social media it would have ended up as one of those fake news stories but it was well publicized by even the most credible media in the country. There’s no way it can be described as “purported doctored audio and video”. This is wrong damage control move which to some persons, could even serve as further confirmation of the incident.
According to the SA on Media and Publicity, “The two journalists were never embarrassed, intimidated or harassed to the knowledge of the governor in any government event as alleged and the governor never ordered for such…. the governor never ordered a ban on any journalist from attending state functions.” This means the entire media concocted the story against the governor. Though fake news has found disturbing space in the media sector in recent times, it does not vitiate the fact that credible and professional journalism still exists. This statement by the governor’s SA on Media and Publicity is really bad damage control.

This denial is typical of Donald Trump who most recently, suggested that ingesting disinfectants could be a way of treating coronavirus only to deny it the next day after public outrage. He claimed he was being sarcastic when actually he was being serious.
Umahi, who made the declaration in a statewide live broadcast aired on the state’s television and radio stations, actually said the two journalists had been banned is for life. Any form of denial is bad damage control.

Public outrage against the governor

The outrage caused by Umahi’s vituperation against journalists was huge. The governor had expected the NUJ)to even sanction the Daily Sun and Vanguard correspondent but the reverse was actually the case; and rightly so. The NUJ instead made it clear to him that he had become an enemy to journalists and his utterances had endangered every reporter in Ebonyi state.

The union, in a statement by its National Secretary, Shuaibu Usman Leman, alleged that the Ebonyi governor had become notorious for his penchant for attacking, intimidating and harassing journalists. It further wondered why the governor was so desperate to suppress press freedom in a constitutional democracy.

Several organization and human rights groups have also condemned the actions of Governor Umahi and the barrage of condemnations has continued despite the purported denial by his Special Assistant Media and Publicity. Among the groups that have lashed out on the governor over the action are Coalition for Whistleblowers Protection and Press Freedom (CWPPF), Ebonyi Transparency and Accountability Network (E-TAN), Indigenous People of Biafra, IPOB, the International Press Centre, Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO) and Ebonyi Indigenes in Diaspora. They have knocked the governor for acting in total disregard of the dictates of democracy and rule of law.

The Igbo youth organization, Ohanaeze Youth Council (OYC), threatened legal action against the governor if he did not rescind the decision to ban the journalists for life. Another group, The Nigeria League of Vet­eran Journalists (NALVEJ) chose very harsh words to describe the governor for acting in the manner he did. The NALVEJ described Umahi as “a local Hitler in Nigeria’s political space, who is not fit to be a governor.” That may sound extreme but it is a reflection of the magnitude of outrage the governor’s anti-press position has stirred up.

Danger to Journalists

What Umahi did was an indirect placement of a ‘mark’ on the head of the two journalists and by extension every other journalist working in the state. It is like sending a coffin to the journalists or in fact, placing a coffin in in front of the NUJ secretariat in the state. Coffin symbolizes death. Placement of coffin at a particular spot is what people do to pass across a message that death was lurking around the corner for the intended recipient of that message. When you make a public broadcast saying you can no longer guarantee the safety of those you are constitutionally protecting it means anything could happen to them the next minute.

The NUJ also made this clear to Umahi. In a statement, the Union said that the governor “would be held responsible should anything happen to any journalist in Ebonyi.” When a governor openly says he cannot guarantee the safety of journalists in his state, and he cannot say how his people would react if journalists write stories against the state, it is an indirect instigation against reporters. It is one of the most dangerous tactics of repressive regimes against the press. Donald Trump’s incessant attacks against journalists, at a point, led to the assault of reporters by members of the public.

For instance, a Republican candidate for Montana’s congressional seat, Greg Gianforte, had on May 24, 2017 physically slammed a Guardian reporter, Ben Jacobs, to the floor on the eve of the state’s special election, breaking his glasses and shouting: “Get the hell out of here.” He was charged with misdemeanor assault after the alleged attacked. Trump showed support for that assault by describing the republican candidate who carried out the assault as a smart guy. Trump had described in glowing terms the physical assault that occurred on 24 May 2017 when Ben Jacobs, the Guardian’s political correspondent, asked Gianforte a question about healthcare policy in the course of a special congressional election in Montana. The US president said: “Greg is smart. And by the way, never wrestle him. You understand. Never.” Trump’s comments mark the first time the president has openly and directly praised a violent act against a journalist on American soil.

This is similar to what Governor Umahi has done and it is a dangerous move against press freedom.

Behaving like Trump?

Umahi’s recent actions against the media can only be likened to what President Donald Trump is doing to the press in the US. Trump’s open hatred for the press has been condemned in several quarters as capable of encouraging leaders across the world to disregard press freedom. What Umahi has done could be seen as fallout of Trump’s actions against the press. Here’s a few of what Trump has done to discredit the media in the US.

President Trump and members of his administration recently mobilized to confront the threat of the coronavirus – not just the outbreak, but the news media and the Democrats they accused of exaggerating its danger.

While stock markets tumbled, companies searched for new supply chains and health officials scrambled to prevent a spread of the virus, Mr. Trump and his aides, congressional allies and backers in the conservative media sought to blame the messenger and the political opposition in the latest polarizing moment in the nation’s capital.

Mr. Trump said that news outlets like CNN were “doing everything they can to instill fear in people,” while some Democrats were “trying to gain political favor by saying a lot of untruths.” His acting White House chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, went even further, telling conservative activists that journalists were hyping the coronavirus because “they think this will bring down the president; that’s what this is all about.”

In an article entitled “How Trump Took Over the Media By Fighting It” which was published on Politico, Jack Shafer noted that during his election, President Trump made himself the biggest news story since 9/11, and almost ‘castrated’ the press in the process. According to Shafer, Trump took press-baiting further than anyone else in public life would have imagined possible. He has isolated the press as his genuine rival, campaigning harder against it sometimes than the other candidates. He’s fought it on a personal level, ridiculing reporters—often by name—as “sleazy,” “extremely dishonest,” “a real beauty,” “unfair,” and “not good people.” Until recently, he blacklisted individual reporters from campaign access. He mocked a disabled reporter; he called Brit Hume and Maureen Dowd “dopes.” He’s fought it institutionally, slathering CNN with a barrage of insults, and castigating the New York Times and the “mainstream media” scores of times.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) recently raised alarm that Donald Trump’s attacks against the press “Dangerously” undermined the Truth. Is this what Governor Umahi want to emulate? According to CPJ, in disparaging tweets and antagonistic responses to journalists’ questions, United States President has been habitually attacking the news media, branding their reports as “fake news” and the “enemy of the people”. In a report which the leading rights organization made available to the media, the group said Trump’s rhetoric, which has become all too familiar since he took office, has been amplified during the coronavirus crisis in the US – a pandemic that health experts say the Trump administration initially downplayed and was slow to address.

The report, titled The Trump Administration and the Media, outlines a lengthy list of actions by Trump and his administration in which he repeatedly denigrated media outlets and journalists, discredited accurate reports, called for the boycott of news organisations and made changes in libel laws to punish critical reporting.

“Low Ratings Fake News MSDNC (Comcast) & @CNN are doing everything possible to make the Coronavirus look as bad as possible, including panicking markets, if possible,” Trump tweeted on February 26. The CPJ added that Trump’s attacks have eroded the credibility of the press in the US. The group cited a Pew survey conducted in March, where 62 percent of respondents said the news media had exaggerated the risks from the COVID-19 virus.

Barely a day goes past without the Trump tweeting about FAKE NEWS or a ‘failing’ publication. He often referred to multiple established broadcasters and publishers as the ‘enemy of the American people’.

These traits by Trump seem to be reflected by Umahi; and this is terrible for democracy and freedom of the press, as the NUJ and other human rights groups have noted.

The proper damage control

The realistic thing for the governor to do now is to go live on air and apologize to journalists in the state and by extension in the country for threatening or being seen to threaten them in the line of duty. Though the state government is claiming the audio and video messages are fake, it is still very important that the world hears Umahi himself debunking the allegation and urging citizens of Ebonyi state to disregard the message and see journalists as partners in progress. This is a governor who has been receiving very good publicity from journalists in the state, especially by letting the world see his wonderful projects in the state, and how he is the best governor in the south east and one of the best in Nigeria. Just one or two reports he finds unpalatable should not be enough to sacrifice the safety of the reporters and move into the bad records of human rights groups as one of the most anti-press leaders in Nigeria.

Finally!

What has not been receiving attention since this issue made it to the front burners is whether the stories published by the two journalists are true.  Did the army invade and kill people in any community in the state? Did cholera ravage and kill people in the state as reported by the journalist? The public relations team of the governor should get to work, first by getting their boss the governor to apologize for the embarrassment and then set the records straight regarding what was reported by the two journalists.

Press freedom is one value that characterizes successful democracies across the world. The same press you attack is the same press you would need to survive when your administration encounters devastating challenges. Toeing the line of Donald Trump will not be of good help to any governor in Nigeria or a leader in any part of the world. While also advising journalists to adhere to their social responsibilities to the public, governments should always strive to ensure that the right atmosphere is in place for press freedom to thrive.

UPDATE!

Few days after posting this article, Governor David Umahi of Ebonyi State apologized to journalists in the state for his actions against them.

On Tuesday April 28, Umahi pleaded with journalists to put behind them the recent impasse involving Vanguard’s correspondent, Mr Peter Okutu and his SUN counterpart, Mr Chijioke Agwu. He tendered this apology in a similar live broadcast at the new Government House, Abakaliki, during which he stated that the development was not intentional.

He called for a media partnership geared towards the development of the State, reports Vanguard.
Here are his words:
“I have directed that the unfortunate incident with the press was not intentional but I’m asking everybody to disregard what has happened because we are all partners in progress and let us work together. But I will advise that you please cross-check information.

“There are certain write-ups that people are not happy about and that is why I said please let everybody down tools in love and work together.

“I specifically asked that the SUN and Vanguard reporters be invited, as a father when you beat a child with one hand, you bring the child back with another hand.

“I believe strongly that if anybody wants to intentionally bring you down he can’t pull you down standing, he will certainly go down with you. And you may even rise above of him. But the single way to be happy in life is to be happy with success.

“I want to invite the press for partnership and also ask them to also please helps build the state. Nobody said you should do preferential reporting, nobody said you should not report the truth because our state is peculiar. Everybody has forgotten what happened let’s work together.”

 

The Author

Chinenye Nwabueze

Nwabueze is a communication researcher with several years of lecturing experience in Nigerian universities.

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