The Akwa Ibom State Council of the Nigeria Union of Journalists, NUJ, appears to be running with the hare and hunting with the hound, as its leadership has come under fire for allegedly colluding with Governor Godswill Akpabio and his government to harass and hound critical media in the state.
Late Tuesday evening, Thomas Thomas, a senior Editor with Global Concord, a fiery independent media known for its critical views against Governor Godswill Akpabio’s administration, was abducted by armed security operatives and later thrown into prison in Uyo, the State capital.
Curiously, while Mr. Thomas’ colleagues and siblings were trying to figure out his whereabouts, a two-page advertorial signed by the Chairman of the state council of the NUJ, Patrick Albert, and the Secretary, Joseph Robert, appeared simultaneously in three national dailies.
Entitled, “Professional Ethics and Public Decorum in Journalism Practice in Akwa Ibom State: Our Position”, the critical publication singled out the arrested editor’s medium for criticism.
Apart from indicting the medium as one of the newspapers the union has regularly received enquiries about it editorial contents, the advertorial disowned the paper for not registering with the union.
“For the records, Global Concord is not documented with the state council either directly or through any of our chapels,” Mr. Albert said. “Global Concord editorial staff are also not registered with any of our chapels, which could have made them members of the union in the state council of NUJ.
“Obviously, NUJ can only perform professional oversight functions on editorial staff and news media registered with the union,” he added.
He went ahead to eulogize the Akpabio administration for his media friendly posture and uncommon development of the state, reiterating the governor’s popular advice to journalists to be cautious that “Breaking news should not be allowed to break the society.”
Most journalists in the state who participated in the NUJ elections last year were quick to fault Mr. Albert that Global Concord editorial staff were not members of the union, as he rode on the crest of their votes to office.
Some of the journalists who spoke with PREMIUM TIMES in confidence, for fear of being victimized by agents of the state governor, expressed surprise that instead of working to secure Mr. Thomas’ freedom, the union leader was colluding with government.
“Where did the state council get almost N3 million to pay for the advertorials it ran in three national newspapers to publicize its position?” an angry member of the union asked in an interview on Friday.
“Is anyone still in doubt where the money could have come from?” he added.
The immediate past Chairman of the union, Joe Effiong, said it is unfortunate that the situation has been allowed to degenerate to the level where Mr. Thomas is being hounded by the authorities.
Mr. Effiong said, “It’s unfortunate that the situation has been allowed to degenerate to the level it has become. Global Concord as a media organization may not have registered with the NUJ, because media houses are not supposed to register with the NUJ to do their job.
“It is only individual journalists that should. In any case, membership of the Union is optional.”
The former NUJ boss, however, argued that the leadership of the union should have asserted its independence and advised the state to do what is right when it concerns the right of journalists to do their job.
Continuing, Mr. Effiong said, “If the state government has anything against Thomas Thomas, as a person, or Global Concord as an organisation, one should expect that it should have gone to court to seek redress. In the alternative, it should have petitioned the state NUJ, which has a responsibility to ensure that erring members are brought to order.
“By not acting to protect Thomas, the union leadership has abandoned a member at a very critical time and this is very unfortunate and strange. There is no doubt that journalists working for Global Concord are members of the Union, whether their medium registers with it or not. Everyone is aware that they participated fully in the last election of the union.”
Mr. Effiong, who is the state correspondent of the Sun Newspapers, noted that it could not have been a mere coincidence for Mr. Thomas to be arrested on the same day the union published advertorials criticizing the Global Concord in national dailies.
While he would not be dragged into the controversy on how the union got funds to pay for the advertorials, Mr. Effiong said he was concerned about how the union’s leadership would come out of the crisis without denting its integrity and losing public confidence.
The Lead Director, Centre for Social Justice, Eze Onyekpere, said it was strange for the NUJ in the state to expect media houses to register before they can practice.
Mr. Onyekpere said, “It’s strange to expect that a media house must register with the NUJ to practice. Where in the Constitution are media houses required to register with the NUJ to practice?
“It does not make sense. If it were individual journalists, one would say for professional solidarity, like the lawyers, they may do so. But, I am not aware of any law that demands that journalists should register with the NUJ to disseminate information for the good of the society.”
A journalist in the state familiar with how the NUJ operates told PREMIUM TIMES the adverts were sent to the media houses by one of the Personal Assistants to Aniekan Umanah, the state Commissioner of Information.
Checks on the tariffs charged by the newspapers on which the controversial advertorials where published showed that the Sun Newspapers charges N450, 000, while Leadership Newspapers takes NN448, 875 and the Nation; N458, 835.
When contacted, Mr. Albert denied that the advertorial was paid for by the government and also insisted that the arrest of the Global Concord editor has nothing to do with the publication by the union.
He explained that although the two events happened almost at the same time, they had no correlation whatsoever.
Mr. Albert insisted that the thrust of the controversial advert was not registration of media houses with the NUJ, but the need for documentation and strict adherence to ethical standards.
Below are links to our earlier reports on the harassment of Global Concord’s Thomas Thomas.