The Akwa Ibom state government has launched a blistering media campaign against a PREMIUM TIMES journalist, Cletus Ukpong, whose investigative reports exposed the rot in public schools in the oil-rich state.
The six-part investigative series, which have prompted debates on the state government priorities and spending, detailed the harrowing experience pupils, students, and teachers go through in the state’s broken education system – where some poor kids have to sit on bare floor in roofless classrooms to learn, and poorly paid teachers, who sometimes go for months without salary, go as far as collecting money from students to allow them cheat in examinations.
The Akwa Ibom governor, Udom Emmanuel, linked the Akwa Ibom situation to inadequate resources and the “surge” in enrollments in public schools.
Mr Ukpong, an Assistant Editor, covers Nigeria’s South-South region for PREMIUM TIMES. He is from Akwa Ibom state.
Mr Ukpong suddenly became the subject of spurious reports making headlines in local newspapers in Akwa Ibom as soon as PREMIUM TIMES began running the series on the poor state of education in the state.
The media attack is coordinated by the personal assistant on media to Governor Emmanuel, Essien Ndueso, and is intended to discredit the reporter.
One newspaper publisher who was recruited for the campaign, but later opted out of it, told PREMIUM TIMES, N10 million-budget has been created for the media campaign in the Akwa Ibom Government House, Uyo.
Global Pilot, a local paper which is owned and edited by the governor’s media aide, Mr Ndueso, on July 3 hit the newsstand with a fabricated story that claimed that Mr Ukpong, alongside his brother, caused the death of their uncle, Ignatius Ukpong, a retired professor and a former Secretary to former Cross River State government.
The paper lied that the PREMIUM TIMES reporter duped the uncle of millions of naira from a road contract awarded to the family which it said led to the man’s ‘untimely’ death.
Elizabeth Ukpong, the widow of the late professor, has refuted the lies.
The late politician was 78 when he died in 2013.
“Your Excellency, it is so sad and it breaks my heart for your aide to fabricate and publish such lies that my late husband died because he was “fooled” and “scammed” by his nephews,” Mrs Ukpong said in a letter she sent to the governor on June 4.
She copied Mr Ndueso’s uncle, Nduese Essien, a former minister for Lands, Housing Urban Development.
She also copied a foremost Ibibio traditional ruler, Essien Ekidem, the Ntisong Ibibio III, and Etim Abia, the paramount ruler of Eket.
In the letter, Mrs Ukpong said she understood the governor’s aide was trying to get at Cletus Ukpong because of his journalism work.
The family does not have influence in what the PREMIUM TIMES reporter does as a journalist, she said, adding that if it is Mr Ndueso’s job schedule to tackle Mr Ukpong, he could go ahead with that “dutifully” without bringing in other members of the family.
“Even in his dying moment, my late husband had a very peaceful, cordial, and lovely relationship with his nephews.
“If he were to be alive today, Prof. I.I. Ukpong would have condemned Mr Essien Ndueso for this blackmail and the attempt to cause disunity in the family,” Mrs Ukpong said in the letter.
“By using Global Pilot, a local tabloid which is owned, published, and promoted by him, to manufacture lies and weave them around late Chief (Prof.) I.I. Ukpong, his nephews – Mr Sylvanus Ukpong, and Mr. Cletus Ukpong – Mr Essien Ndueso has broken the age-long Ibibio tradition which forbid people from speaking ill against the dead.”
She went on to place a curse on the governor’s aide.
“If there is an iota of truth in what Mr Essien Ndueso has published in his Global Pilot newspaper, may it be well with him and his household. But if not, let shame and public ridicule be upon him, his household, and everyone who has a hand in that shameful publication.
“May they not know peace in their lives, since they don’t want late Prof. I.I. Ukpong to rest in peace,” she wrote.
The governor’s aide, Mr Ndueso, has continued with the government agenda, by pushing the Global Pilot story into several blogs, and other local newspapers backed up the Akwa Ibom State government, despite Mrs Ukpong’s appeal to Governor Emmanuel that her dead husband be left out of the media attack.
The lies were carried as front-page stories in The Waves newspaper published by one Ephraim Ikpe; The Update, published by Emmanuel Effiong; The Town Crier, published by Ernest Akpan; and The Anchor, published by Joseph Okon, who is Governor Emmanuel’s aide on grassroots mobilization.
The publishers of the newspapers that carried the fake story were given N10, 000 each by the state government through Mr Ndueso, PREMIUM TIMES learnt.
Mr Ndueso had previously made a failed attempt on Facebook to discredit one of the investigative series which revealed how students were raised in squalor in a top science college in the state.
He said on the social media site it was a “shame” for Mr Ukpong to author the report since he is from the same local government area with the state governor.
The PREMIUM TIMES reporter, Mr Ukpong, said he has been receiving strange calls and that his movement is being trailed lately by people suspected to be agents of the Akwa Ibom state government.
“I am cautious, but I am not deterred from doing my job,” he said.
“It so unfortunate to see a place as prestigious as the Government House in my dear state become the very source and foundation of gutter journalism and fake news.
“In my entire journalism career, I have never seen this kind of obscene lies being published and promoted by a government-sponsored publication,” Mr Ukpong said.
“I weep for my dear state,” he added.
Mr Ukpong, who said he had contacted his lawyers on the matter, said Mr Ndueso and co. would be making a big mistake to think he would give up on his professional calling because of the lies fabricated against him.
“Their attack has only succeeded in making me be more resolute in my job.
“It is the duty of the government to build schools and other infrastructure for the people. It is my duty to tell the world where and when they fail to do so,” he said, adding that he was ready to inform the public on whatever steps the government would be taking to revive public education in the state.
The Managing Editor of PREMIUM TIMES, Idris Akinbajo, condemned the “apparent state-sponsored attack” on Mr Ukpong, and said it was worrisome to see a government display such intolerance against a journalist who is merely doing his job.
“We have confidence in Cletus Ukpong’s ability and integrity to do his job,” Mr Akinbajo said. “And we will continue to support him and all our reporters to deliver quality reports for the good of the Nigerian society.”
Mr Akinbajo advised the Akwa Ibom state government to desist from further attack against the reporter, and to ensure that no harm comes to him.