An international freedom of expression advocacy group and two Nigerian non-governmental organizations have criticized the Akwa Ibom State Government for embarking on a smear campaign against Mr Cletus Ukpong, South-south regional editor of Premium Times newspaper.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO) a local human rights organization and the Independent Newspaper Publishers Association (INPA) all condemned the state government action against the journalist for his investigative work.
The Akwa Ibom State government allegedly sponsored and syndicated fake stories in local newspapers circulating in the state following the publication of Cletus’ began investigative series which exposed the rot in public schools in the oil-rich state.
One of such syndicated fake news claimed that Cletus duped his uncle, a retired professor, of a huge amount of money, which caused him heartbreak and subsequently, death. The widow of the late professor refuted the claim.
Those who published the fake news were said to have been given a bribe of N10, 000 (about U.S $28) each by the Akwa Ibom government to publish them in their mediums.
Reacting on Twitter, CPJ in its twitter handle @CPJAfrica said it was “deeply concerned” by the reports that the Akwa Ibom State Government was running a smear campaign against the journalist. The group said: “The government of @MrUdomEmmanuel should let @PremiumsTimesng journalist @CletusUkpong do his job without fear of reprisal,” adding “Investigative journalism is essential for good governance and democracy.”
The Akwa Ibom state chapter of the CLO said in a statement issued by its chairman, Ibrahim M. T condemned the attack saying: “To us in Civil Liberties Organisation, it is unfortunate that rather than commend the industry of the reporter, there is an orchestrated attempt at intimidating and preventing him from doing his legitimate duties, through organised personal attacks. And this is not acceptable to us.”
“We strongly condemn these media attacks on the person of the reporter, through sponsored libelous fabrications and resort to using willing hands to propagate ill-conceived falsehood against the reporter.
“We call on Governor Udom Emmanuel to, rather than continuing in this infamous personal attacks, channel more resources into rehabilitating the schools highlighted in the report,” the group said.
The Independent Newspaper Publishers Association (INPA), in a statement signed by its president, Solomon Johnny also condemned the attack saying the claims against Cletus demonstrated “low intellectuality and pettiness,” adding: “It is an indisputable fact that education needs a revival in Akwa Ibom State.
INPA said it had read Cletus’ investigative series and agreed that he succeeded largely in drawing government’s attention to the issue while also commending him “for such a great work of journalism”.
It condemned the attack on the reporter and called on Governor Udom Emmanuel to caution members of his media team to immediately halt the needless attacks forthwith and reconsider their strategies in branding and marketing the government within acceptable framework of truth, decency, and professionalism.
Inibehe Effiong, a human right lawyer, also condemned the smear campaign against Cletus describing the attack as “irresponsible” and “primitive”. He noted that Cletus “has not done anything outside his professional obligations and mandate as an independent, reputable and highly respected investigative reporter and journalist,” adding: “He has consistently reported on issues that affect the populace with the aim of drawing attention to them.”
The lawyer urged the state government to give satisfactory account of funds expended on public primary and secondary schools in the last decade rather than resort to crude media attacks on Cletus and his family and also called on the government to immediately take steps to revive public education in Akwa Ibom State.