Friday, 24 April 2020

Amidst Barrage Of Attacks:Ebonyi Gov Makes U-Turn,Denies Banning Two Journalists For Life

Ebonyi State Governor, David Umahi, got more lashing on Thursday for barring two reporters from covering the state and for threatening journalists.

The governor had in a broadcast on Thursday announced the ban of The Sun and Vanguard correspondents Chijioke Agwu and Peter Okutu.

He said: “Ebonyi State is no longer a dumping ground. Only the other day, Chijioke Agwu 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.”

Umahi also made veiled threats to journalists.

“If you think you have the pen, we have the koboko (cane). 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,” the governor said.

But Umahi, despite making the statement on live television, denied it on Thurdsay.

His Special Assistant on Media, Francis Nwaze, said in a statement that the governor “never ordered a ban on any journalist from attending state functions.”

He said his attention was “drawn to the news and a purportedly doctored audio and video”, but he did not provide the original video or audio that was altered.

Nwaze added that the governor, on April 15 and 22, made a complaint to the state chapter of the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) over “unverified and false reports” that are “capable of causing panic in Ebonyi state”.

“I, therefore, call on the general public, NUJ and others concerned to discountenance with the false reports, videos and audio as they are either a figment of the bearers imagination which they brought to bear or a deliberate attempt geared towards smearing the hard-earned good reputation and good media relationship of the governor.”

He said the reports by Agwu and Okutu were “ill-conceived and have no truth in them”.

But, the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) and senior lawyers, including a former NBA President Dr Olisa Agbakoba (SAN), rights-activist Mr Femi Falana (SAN), Chief Louis Alozie (SAN), former National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) Chairman Prof Chidi Odinkalu and Dr Fassy Yusuf described Umahi’s threat as “incredible”, “ridiculous” “barbaric” and an act of “rascality”.

They said his draconian and “power-drunk” action was contrary to democratic norms and must be condemned in the strongest terms.

This is as the management of The Sun protested the harassment and intimidation of its reporter.

It is asked the Inspector General of Police (IGP) Mohammed Adamu to ensure that Governor Umahi and his agents stop a further violation of the reporter’s rights.

The Sun Managing Director/Editor-in-Chief, Onuoha Ukeh, said there was a plot to arraign Agwu on trumped-up charges after he was detained for about nine hours.

The Sun urged the IGP to ensure that adequate security is provided for Agwu in view of the governor’s veiled threat that the security of journalists was no longer guaranteed.

NBA said the governor lacked the power to hinder the operations of the media in a democracy.

In a statement by its National Publicity Secretary, Kunle Edun, NBA said: “The NBA views the reported threat ascribed to the Governor of Ebonyi State allegedly banning two journalists for life as unfortunate and a sad reminder of the rule by force under the military regime.

“The Nigerian press constitutes the fourth realm in the democracy estate and plays a very important function in ensuring the growth of our democracy.

“The right to freedom of expression and the right to impart and disseminate information are constitutionally guaranteed rights under the 1999 Constitution and same cannot be taken away by executive fiat.

“The law against libel is available for anyone seeking remedies against false publications. Our democracy requires an unfettered and courageous press to grow. It is anti-people to gag the press.

“Government is expected to partner with the media, civil society organisations and professional organisations like the NBA to help in the delivery of the dividends of democracy.”
Read Also: Outrage as Ebonyi Governor Umahi bars reporters from Govt House ‘for life’

Senior lawyers said Umahi’s threat that the safety of journalists in the state could no longer be guaranteed had serious implications and portrayed him “as an ignorant person.”

For Agbakoba, the statement was not only incredible but also a gross violation of free speech and the constitutional right of the media to report public matters.

He added: “The governor did not help matters by purporting to ban some journalists from covering the state house for life!!! Simply preposterous.

“I hope the governor withdraws the threat that the journalists are not safe in his state as his statement has major implications.

“I expect the NUJ to take the strongest possible measures.”

According to Falana, Umahi seemed to be “power-drunk”

He said members of the “most reactionary wing of the ruling class” to which governors belongs “are hiding under the pretext of enforcing COVID-19 regulations and guidelines to abrogate or derogate from the human rights of the Nigerian people.”

“It is ridiculous to note that a governor whose term of office will expire in 2023 by effluxion of time has become so power-drunk to the extent of banning journalists from performing their duties for life.”

Chief Alozie said banishing journalists and newspaper correspondents was “astonishing” and “barbaric”.

“The action of the governor constitutes a gross infringement of the fundamental right of the said journalists to receive and impart ideas and information which is a component of the fundamental right to freedom of expression.

“Government activities are not supposed to be cult activities or secret or confidential. It is for this purpose that the freedom of information act was enacted by the National Assembly,” Alozie said.

He added that the governor’s claim that he could not guarantee the journalists’ safety in Ebonyi was “barbaric and belittles the governor in the eyes of right-thinking members of the public as it is manifestly unconstitutional, null and void.

“Every citizen of Nigeria has the right to live and work in any part of the country he chooses to. It is apparent that the governor acted in ignorance…”

Odinkalu, in tweet on his Twitter handle, described Umahi as one of Nigeria’s tin gods and “#godoftheeast operating from Abakaliki”.

Dr Yusuf said if the statement was true, “it is tantamount to executive rascality and gross abuse of power…”

“If he does not rescind the unlawful and illegal order, the newspapers and the journalists affected should approach the court for the enforcement of their fundamental rights.

“The threat should also be reported to the Inspector-General of Police, Director-General of State Security Service and the Nigeria Governors’ Forum to enable them to call Governor Umahi to order and act on the threat.

“Those occupying public office should remember that ‘no condition is permanent’ as their actions and inactions will sooner than later be their cross.”

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