By Mohammed Lere
The Akwa Ibom State Government has come under severe criticism for sponsoring a smear campaign against a PREMIUM TIMES journalist, Cletus Ukpong.
Mr Ukpong’s name and photograph appeared in fake stories in local newspapers in Akwa Ibom immediately PREMIUM TIMES began running his investigative series which exposed the rot in public schools in the oil-rich state.
The stories were fabricated by the state government and syndicated to newspapers with the intent to get at the journalist because of his investigative work, this newspaper learnt.
One of the fake stories, which is being circulated on the Internet, claimed that Mr Ukpong duped his uncle, a retired professor, of some huge amount of money, which caused him to die of heartbreak.
The widow of the late professor has refuted the lie against the journalist, who is PREMIUM TIMES’ editor for the South-south region of Nigeria.
Publishers were said to have received a bribe of N10, 000 (about U.S $28) each from the Akwa Ibom government to publish the fake stories in their papers.
One of the publishers who refused to be part of the campaign against Mr Ukpong told PREMIUM TIMES that Essien Ndueso, a media aide to the Akwa Ibom governor, Udom Emmanuel, informed him that the funding was provided by the Commissioner for Works in the state, Ephraim Inyang.
Mr Ndueso in an interview with PREMIUM TIMES denied having a hand in the campaign against Mr Ukpong. He also denied being the publisher of Global Pilot, a local paper that is at the fore-front of publishing lies against the PREMIUM TIMES reporter.
“I have never been a publisher in my life,” he said. “I am not publishing any newspaper.”
The Commissioner for Works, Ephraim Inyang, hasn’t responded to calls and text messages sent to his telephone lines.
The Committee for Protection of Journalists (CPJ) said on Twitter, it was “deeply concerned” by the reports that the Akwa Ibom State Government was running a smear campaign against Mr Ukpong.
“The government of @MrUdomEmmanuel should let @PremiumsTimesng journalist @CletusUkpong do his job without fear of reprisal,” the group said through its Twitter handle @CPJAfrica.
“Investigative journalism is essential for good governance and democracy,” it added.
Another group, the Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO), also condemned the attack on the reporter.
“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,” the Akwa Ibom state chapter of the CLO said in a statement issued by its chairman, Ibrahim M. T.
“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) also condemned the attack.
The lies fabricated against Mr Ukpong, the group said, demonstrated “low intellectuality and pettiness”.
“It is an indisputable fact that education needs a revival in Akwa Ibom State.
“INPA has read through the investigative series in question. What we see in the series is that Mr Cletus Ukpong succeeded largely in drawing government attention to this fact and wish to commend him for such a great work of journalism.
“We condemn the attack on the reporter and hereby call on Governor Udom Emmanuel to caution members of his media team to immediately stop this needless attacks forthwith and reconsider their strategies in branding and marketing the government within acceptable framework of truth, decency, and professionalism,” the group said in a statement signed by its president, Solomon Johnny.
“We implore the Akwa Ibom state govt @aksgovt to address the challenges in this investigative article rather than attack the journalist,” Eduplana, a civic organization which focuses on education management in Nigeria, tweeted through its handle @Eduplana_NG.
Inibehe Effiong, a human right lawyer, condemned the attack on the journalist as being “irresponsible” and “primitive”.
“Mr Cletus Ukpong has not done anything outside his professional obligations and mandate as an independent, reputable and highly respected investigative reporter and journalist.
“He has consistently reported on issues that affect the populace with the aim of drawing attention to them.
“We are aware that the present crop of political office holders in Akwa Ibom State do not only resent every form of critical opinion but views probing questions as evil which should be crushed,” Mr Effiong said in a statement.
He added, “Rather than resort to crude media attacks on Mr Ukpong and his family, the state government should give satisfactory account of funds expended on public primary and secondary schools in the last decade. The government should immediately take steps to revive public education in Akwa Ibom State.”