Governor Dave Umahi of Ebonyi State has just come off an unnecessary fight with journalists working for two newspaper organisations. It is not clear who won the confrontation. Judging by the governor’s remorseful tone following one week in which excessive anger took over common sense, it is obvious that Umahi now wishes he never engaged in that conflict.
It is never a good idea to pick a fight with journalists. In a message he broadcast to the people of Ebonyi State nearly two weeks ago, Umahi declared two journalists, Chijioke Agwu of The Sun and Peter Okutu of the Vanguard, persona non grata in the state. Specifically, he banned the journalists from entering the Government House and from accessing any government facilities. That was a harsh and disproportionate punishment served on the journalists for their alleged cardinal sins.
The bizarre aspect of the governor’s reaction was his declaration that the ban on the journalists was for a lifetime. It is bizarre for an elected governor to impose a life ban on journalists who have an obligation to serve society. By implication, that meant the journalists were forbidden from entering Ebonyi State for as long as they lived. Never in the history of Nigeria has a state governor or President placed a lifetime ban on a journalist or editor. Of course, that pronouncement could be overturned by a high court if the matter was challenged legally. A governor might enjoy immunity from prosecution while in office but that did not authorise any governor to exceed their powers.
Umahi also expressed his disappointment with the leadership of the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) whom, he said, failed to discipline the two journalists. He said: “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.”
What actually did the journalists do to attract the governor’s anger? We can discern from the governor’s words. He said: “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.”
How disappointing to see a governor play God.
Agwu of The Sun was arrested first because of a report he wrote on the alleged outbreak of Lassa fever in the state. He was set free later. Okutu of the Vanguard was apprehended for a report he wrote on an alleged military offensive on the people of Umuogodoakpu-Ngbo community. He was also released later.
Incensed by Governor Umahi’s treatment of the journalists, the national secretary of the NUJ, Shuaibu Usman Leman, expressed outrage over the harassment and intimidation of the journalists. He said he was amazed that an elected governor was keen to suppress press freedom in a country that is regarded as a democracy.
Barely one week after the angry exchanges, Umahi retracted his ban on the two journalists and said they were free to return. He announced: “I have directed that The Sun and the Vanguard reporters be invited to join us. The unfortunate incident with the press was not intentional, but I am 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 your information before publication.”
The approach adopted by Umahi did not reflect positively on the high office he occupies. His public statement against the journalists aggravated rather than calmed the tense situation. The manner he reproached the journalists did not dignify his high office. He was bossy, highhanded, and overbearing. By stating during his broadcast that the journalists would not receive protection or support from the government, the governor effectively cast a death sentence on those journalists.
Perhaps Umahi might borrow some wise counsel from Jim Nwobodo, governor of the old Anambra State between 1979 and 1983. Nwobodo once advised that the hallmark of maturity is the ability to remain calm in the face of provocation. If Umahi was provoked, he had legal and non-legal means of resolving the matter. He could go to court. He didn’t. He could file a formal complaint against the journalists through their employers. That would give the organisations an opportunity to investigate and take proper action. He didn’t do so. He could complain directly to the managing director and/or editor-in-chief of The Sun and Vanguard. He didn’t take that path. He could complain to the executive of the state chapter of the NUJ. He didn’t approach the NUJ leadership.
These are channels through which the governor would have resolved the misunderstanding. The journalists were not given an opportunity to respond to the allegations made against them. Even if their reports were inaccurate, the journalists deserved, and indeed had, a right to express their views and to defend themselves. If they had no justifiable reason to report the way they did, they could offer an apology. Journalists are human beings. They can make mistakes. That is why newspaper organisations often reserve space to retract incorrect news reports.
In my judgment and with due respect to the governor, he did not handle the situation in a way that many people expected. The NUJ was clearly embarrassed. In anger, the union’s leadership declared the governor an enemy of the media. The NUJ executive could have approached the governor to talk things over and resolve the matter.
Journalists are obligated to serve the society in which they operate in the same way that elected governors have a duty to govern in the interest of the people. Governors and journalists serve almost similar constituencies. While journalists represent a wider population than state governors, the governors are limited to serve people within the physical borders of their states. Any action taken by a governor that goes beyond the state boundary infringes on the sovereignty and rights of another state.
In every society, the press functions as the official channel for conveying news and information to the public. Some news reports might be hard to consume while some others could be hailed. It is not the duty of journalists to publish or broadcast only the kind of news that appeals to governors. One of the canons of journalism requires journalists to be truthful, accurate, fair, balanced, and impartial when reporting news.