The news from Ebonyi State is not good. Anything that works to inhibit free function of the media is very injurious to democracy. Free press is the life blood of a genuine democracy. And this vital organ is what Mr David Umahi’s government of Ebonyi State has reportedly decided to stifle.
Two journalists; one of the Sun newspapers, Chijioke Agwu; and the other the Vanguard newspapers, Peter Okutu, are reported to be banned for life by Umahi’s government from covering official activities and institutions in Ebonyi State. Their “offences”? Agwu reported alleged incidences of lassa fever in the state, a situation the government would prefer to be presented in a more favourable light. He was the first to be arrested and locked up preparatory for prosecution. Following intervention by media associations and other public -spirited groups he was not prosecuted after all. Okutu reported that military personnel allegedly invaded a community in Ngbo, Ohaukwu local government area, where a naval officer was suspected to have been killed. Again the official position was that Okutu’s story was false.
Governor Umahi’s media aide, Francis Nwaze, reportedly tricked Okutu to a hotel in Abakaliki where the impression was created to the hapless journalist that the Ohaukwu LGA Chairman, Clement Odah, would speak to him on the tragic event at Ngbo. He took along his colleague from another newspaper, believing that the invitation from the governor’s media aide was in good faith. Instead he arrived at the venue to be whisked away by men of the State Anti-Robbery Squad. If the media reports are correct, one is at loss to see the relationship between a newspaper story and intervention of a special police squad that is dedicated to fighting violent crimes.
Our comment on these issues is on the approach that the government adopted in reaction to the media publications. They amount to overreaction, even illegality, in our view. Nothing in Nigeria’s statute book empowers a state government to muzzle the press through banning representatives of particular organisations from covering its activities. It is illegal because it flies in the face of the constitution of our country which guarantees freedom of expression. We, of course, concede that there are remedies where a report in the media is found to be false or inaccurate but none of such remedies includes resort to arbitrary diktats, threats, and coercion. We do not know if on this occasion the stories in question are false but, all the same, even if they are, there are remedies that are in consonance with the rule of law and democracy that the Ebonyi State government or any other aggrieved part can take advantage of.
The sort of precipitate pronouncement and reckless action that Governor Umahi was reported to have made are ill-advised and inimical to democracy. Until he said so, we never could have imagined that a governor in a democratic setting could have the effrontery to tell reporters, “If you think you have the pen, we have the koboko” (the horse-hide whip that is used for torture). And the governor followed it up by banning his victims for life from covering stories in his government.
We would like to advise that, as a rule, heavy -handed treatment of the press always collapse on its weight. Those resorting to arbitrariness and undue coercion always find at last how futile, or even counterproductive, their methods are. Perhaps the world’s worst example of such authoritarianism is the ridiculous decree by a military junta here in Nigeria in the 1980s which attempted to outlaw publications that the regime of the day considered embarrassing, whether or not such publications were true. The infamous law known as Decree 4 of 1984 despite being backed by all the instruments of strong -arms tactics has been consigned to the ignominious dustbin of history, and the media are still around serving the interests of civilised society.
We advise the Ebonyi State government to lift the ban that it has imposed on these two reporters. The government will do better in following best practices in media relations in a democracy such as Nigeria now practices. We also advise any institution through whom instruments of coercion is used to ensure that they always stay on the side of the law. We advise that no harm that is not sanctioned by the law of the land should come to Mr Agwu or Mr Okutu. It is mere short -sightedness to imagine that anyone gains anything in the long run in a situation of tyrannical use of force.