My constant assertion that Cross River State Governor, Senator Ben Ayade is a threat to free speech and a free press in Cross River State has been challenged by some of his aides who also want me to proof my allegation with facts. The thing about this administration is that, in the same manner they make and forget promises so quickly, they also forget very quickly how often the Ayade Government has attempted to stifle free speech and free Press since he assumed office.
Before his ascension, my experience as a reporter in Cross River State, under Governor Liyel Imoke also recorded some breaches but generally, the media in the State had a wider space to practice their trade. Imoke met with the Press regularly and took questions with equanimity, no matter how upsetting the questions were.
The Imoke administration bullied and intimidated and persecuted a medical practitioner, Doctor Elihu Osim, who accused Imoke’s wife of child trafficking. He was later charged in a trumped up allegation.
Governor Imoke also dragged Chief Okoi Obono Obla and ThisDay Correspondent, Bassey Inyang to Court over a publication he said was libellous.
But there was no reported incident of violent aggression towards citizens or journalists in the State for expressing their views or for writing media reports.
But Imoke had a deputy, Efiok Cobham, with a different temperament. In 2013, CrossRiverWatch did a report about the former Deputy Governor that really got him upset and he publicly threatened to kill Agba Jalingo and destroy CrossRiverWatch over that report. A combined team of security agents were sent to arrest the then Editor of CrossRiverWatch, Emmanuel Unah, from his home at midnight and he was detained at the Police headquarters in Calabar until Governor Imoke who was seeking medical help in the US intervened and sought his release against the will of his deputy who was Acting Governor at the time.
On his return, Imoke openly cautioned Cobham in exco and warned him to allow the Press to do their work and not to create any further rift between his Government and journalists in the State and it appears that caution was taken seriously. Such incidents stopped till the end of their tenure.
When Ayade resumed office, the situation began to change. The regular media interactions with the Governor were the first casualty. Unlike what obtains before Ayade, this Governor has held only two meetings with the Press in four and half years he has been in office.
The first meeting which was very early in his administration, broke down after journalists asked him questions he called “beer palor” questions. He swore never to meet “those idiots” again.
The second meeting was hurriedly called after the EFCC arrested the Governor’s younger brother, Frank Ayade, in 2017. Once the Governor knew the information had leaked to the media, he requested for a meeting which was essentially to manage the situation.
Under Imoke, apart from closed door sessions, correspondents were all allowed in exco to witness sittings and signing of partnerships and MoUs. Governor Ayade has rather created his own coterie of “friendly press” who are the only ones now allowed to cover his activities, while the CPS sends Press Releases to Editors. You stay in that “friendly press” at the pleasure of the Governor. He has expelled those considered critical. The media is being dictated to, how to cover the Governor, if not, you are kicked out. And then the constant attacks on individuals and the media for expressing dissenting views, has spiked, compared to the past.
A former lecturer in UNICAL and critic of the Ayade Government, Joseph Odok was the first casualty early into the administration. He was attacked and stabbed at Zanzibar in Calabar by persons it turned out were sent by Government functionaries according to Police investigation. The matter was transferred from Calabar to Abuja, where the Chief of Staff to the Governor, Martin Orim, former State Security Adviser, Jude Ngaji and a former Director in the State Green Sheriff, nicknamed Defense, were all fingered and invited for questioning in Abuja, in a case that was profiled as attempted assassination by the Police. There is still pending investigation ongoing in the matter.
Ifere Paul, another popular critic of the Ayade administration, was next to follow. On the instigation of the Governor via a complaint by the former State Attorney General, Joe Abang, the Police abducted Ifere from Abuja, drove him in a truck from Abuja to Calabar in chains, before he was charged by the Cross River State Government for allegedly writing things on Facebook that are capable of inciting the public against Government. The Court has since thrown out the charge.
Publisher of Fearless Reports, Inyali Peter was also physically attacked, beaten and wounded in Obudu in 2018 by appointees of the Ayade Government for allegedly writing and publishing things against the Government. Inyali petitioned the Police and named his attackers but the matter was swept under the carpet because of those involved.
Former CrossRiverWatch Government House Correspondent, Jonathan Ugbal, Government House Information Officer, Nakanda Amboni Iyadim and a youth corper from Taraba State that was serving in the Government House, were arrested in 2018, after CrossRiverWatch published photographs of Commissioners sleeping in exco chambers while waiting for the Governor. The trio were taken to the Police headquarters, Diamond Hill Calabar, where they were intimidated, harassed and their privacy was violated with their phones and cameras searched without a warrant, in a bid to find who transmitted the photos to CrossRiverWatch. They were detained and later released on bail without a charge.
The recent arrest, detention and subsequent arraignment of CrossRiverWatch Managing Editor, Jeremiah Archibong and News Editor, Jonathan Ugbal for showing up at a scheduled event to do their job, is also being instigated by the Chief of Staff to the Governor of Cross River State on orders from the boss.
And then the latest attempt by the Governor to whip CrossRiverWatch into submission. The invitation by the Police over an article in CrossRiverWatch, is an attempt to criminalize a civil matter, all in a bid to please one man who doesn’t want to be challenged, regardless of his decisions. This is the reality that we have to contend with in Cross River State, in the days of Ayade.
But this is an exercise in futility. It is an expression of innate panic and insecurity that the leader is battling with. The media has never been the problem. Citizen’s perceptions, opinions or what they write has never been the problem. Government has always been the problem. The desire of Government to control; to control both the media and the people. To stifle their voices and run the State alone. That has always been the problem. But a leader with a good sense of history will know that, no leader ever won any of these battles. The people own the Government. They always win and the media stands to watch and tell the story.
The media in our State will not allow this Government to silence us. We will fight, not only for ourselves but for democracy, for free speech, for the right to hold our Government accountable. We will rise in unison and solidarity and tell not just the Ayade Government but every other Government that comes after this one, that the pen is mightier than your guns and security apparatchiks. That we have come of age and we can hold them accountable for the decisions they make on our behalf.
For Governor Ayade, you can bruise us while you reign but you can’t win us. You got only 1374 days to roar, but we will still be here to tell our stories.
Citizen Agba Jalingo.
Citizen Agba Jalingo is the Cross River State Chairman of AAC and writes from Calabar, the Cross River State capital.
NOTE: Opinions expressed in this article are strictly attributable to the author, Agba Jalingo, and do not represent the opinion of CrossRiverWatch or any other organization the author works for/with.
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