INTERVIEW: Why I remain critical of Ebonyi govt despite assault – Journalist

Attacked journalist, Charles Otu.

Charles Otu was one of two journalists beaten to stupor with dangerous weapons and later abducted by suspected political thugs in Abakaliki, the Ebonyi State capital on June 2.

Mr. Otu, the publisher of Conscience, a local newspaper, and also a correspondent of Guardian Newspaper was assaulted allegedly over comments he made on Facebook that were critical of the Ebonyi State government.

Mr. Otu was listed among 12 journalists assaulted in Nigeria in 2017 by the International Press Centre, IPC.

In an interview with PREMIUM TIMES, six months after the attack, Mr. Otu speaks on how the attack affected his career and why he remained resolute to constructively criticise the Ebonyi State Government.

He also gave his take on strategic ways to handle attacks on journalists in the country.

PT – You were reportedly assaulted by thugs believed to be working for the Ebonyi State governor over comments you made on Facebook that were critical of the government. How has this affected your drive as a journalist?

Otu: Truly, the June 2nd, 2017 attack on me by thugs led by a certain Hon. Mark Onu, popularly known as Chopper who said it was at the instance of Ebonyi State Governor, Engr. David Nweze Umahi, traumatised me immensely. Not really because I haven’t physically recuperated but because of the ‘deaf silence’ of the Governor and the Government of Ebonyi State over six months after the horrible encounter. As the world read, my crime was simply that I undertook to critically x-ray the then 2-year-old administration of the governor and tried to match his inaugural and campaign promises in 2015 with the actual realities on ground after two years.

I have continued to dispassionately tackle the government using both regular (my newspaper- The People’s Conscience) and the social media on its policies and programmes. Those that are bad and anti-masses, I have always condemned. And those that are worthy of praise, I have also done that. I only observed that the government, in its morbid desperation to have every practicing journalist on its payroll had continued to make some subtle and even direct threats to my person. Some of them have physically told me that it appeared I learnt nothing on my previous abduction and severe torture but I had to ignore them because democracy and our constitution provides for constructive debate which I had often challenged the Government to do. Many who felt my attack was a desperate attempt to side-line or hijack freedom of expression by the government and its agents have also come out to join the fray in asking questions on the social media hence the Ggovernment has ignored all calls to host town hall meetings where issues could be addressed.

PT – So are you saying you still feel threatened?

Otu – Yes, I still feel threatened. A lot of subtle and direct threats have been made to me on Facebook simply because I refused to backtrack on providing constructive engagements on the actions and activities of the Umahi-led government. Most of them (My attackers) felt that the letter of undertaking to leave Ebonyi State for them which they had said the Governor asked them to compel me to write can still be obtained by threats. One of them, Simbad Victor had boasted while he saw me covering an event that they attacked me before and that they would attack me again! But I have always maintained even before my colleagues that as long as it is the truth, I must be counted in because I would continue to speak that to powers that be.

PT – Are you still critical of the Ebonyi State government in your articles despite the warnings from the attackers?

Otu – Yes, I do still criticise the Ebonyi State Government policies and programmes that I feel are obnoxious and anti-masses! It has always been my belief right from my school days that the press is the last bastion that can save society from oppressive regimes and when it does the contrary, it becomes a dog to be watched instead of being a watchdog! Like I have maintained on radio severally, the press has the constitutional mandate of holding the government accountable at all times in line with Section 22 of the 1999 Constitution (As amended).

There are things the common man would say and won’t have a covering but such, the journalist have been assigned and backed by the law to say so long as it does not breach the fundamental rights of another. If late Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe and other nationalists who used their pen and paper to champion Nigeria’s Independence were afraid like they want the present-day media professionals to be, perhaps Nigeria would have still been under British colonial rule. But democracy, which enshrined our rights into a constitution is actually defined as “some gree, some no gree”.

PT – How has investigation on the issue been going, have security operatives unmasked people behind the attack?

Otu – That has been truly difficult! As I speak, the efforts of the police headquarters here in Abuja to bring the perpetrators to book despite several petitions have not yielded much result. The last time they visited Ebonyi and invited the accused persons to Abuja, they gave them November 8 as a day they would appear. Unfortunately, they failed to show up. It’s obvious that the Governor has been using the same executive powers to provide cover for them. I had witnessed the same frustration in Ebonyi Police Command when they insisted on “mobilisation” (bribery)before they would act. Since I didn’t have money to give them, the suspects were left to even attack more people. I pray and trust, however that the Force Headquarters would bring the culprits to book.

PT – Was there any form of compensation from the government after the attack?

Otu – No! The government has rather kept sealed lips over five months after the horrible encounter. The governor had returned back to the state a day after my attack; many thought he would check me in the hospital to sympathise with me but he proved the fears of many right that perhaps, he may not have been ‘satisfied’ over the way the thugs handled the matter!

PT – What do you feel is the best way to manage and handle issues of attacks on Journalists?

On this, I want to equivocally state that the leadership of NUJ (Nigerian Union of Journalists) at all levels have to wake up to their responsibilities. Can you imagine that even the first set of journalists who came to the emergency unit of the hospital where I was first rushed to interviewed me but refused to send the reports to their respective media houses. They rather ‘traded’ with it and no mainstream media reported it until a NAN (News Agency of Nigeria) reporter did the needful.

Journalists should learn to protect their own knowing that it is the profession that is attacked any time a journalist is touched or harmed. The NUJ should hire some standby legal experts to handle the issue of attacks on their members. The leaders shouldn’t sell out to please a government in power when a journalist has become a victim of an attack. For the Ebonyi State chapter of NUJ, it will shock you to know that they have not formally and officially condemned my abduction and torture needless to talk of helping me fight to get justice.

PT – What has the experience taught you?

Otu – To the politician, who wants the vibrant press man out of his way so the dog will no longer watch over the meat (public treasury), just remember that you have only 4-8 years to reign and go while the media, as an institution will yet remain. The overzealous youth should know that a journalist represents an institution and not just that person they have known overtime. They should ask whoever pays them to attack journalists to seek the face of the law rather than being used to perpetrate violence against the press.

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