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How did Ismaila Isa defend press freedom?

By Martins Oloja
02 August 2020   |   2:01 am
We should not allow the state of anomie that has paralysed most analyses of the way we are at the moment to pave the way for our elders in the news media to get away with their recent provocative and hasty act – naming the NIJ House after the late Ismaila Isa Funtua.

We should not allow the state of anomie that has paralysed most analyses of the way we are at the moment to pave the way for our elders in the news media to get away with their recent provocative and hasty act – naming the NIJ House after the late Ismaila Isa Funtua. Certainly, as most opinion writers have observed, the elders who took this curious decision may have paid their dues, but we should not allow them too to stoop low with this storm in a teacup to stain their badge of honour. The unnamed elders of the Nigerian Press Organisation (NPO) who have not responded to persistent demand for the evidence of gusty meetings where the decision was taken to name the NIJ House after amiable Funtua, one of our veteran soldiers, Mr. Ray Ekpu actually described in his own tribute as a “warrior for press freedom”. I would like to join some of our younger ones who have been asking the elders not to hold their peace yet. They should not hoist the flag yet.

Main reason: Alhaji Funtua can be described as a successful businessman, a socially intelligent political actor, a resourceful investor in banking and communications technology, a respected friend of top strong men and women in the NPO, an influential in-law of the First Family, a very artful friend of even the CBN Governor, but the amiable former Chairman of the Governing Council of the NIJ and a life Patron of the NPAN and an influencer at the IPI, but he hasn’t been significant enough to get the honour of naming the NIJ Flag House after him. I mean yes, he was prominent among NPO big men but he wasn’t significant enough to deserve the honour. I would like to tell you why the NPO’s big men should rescind that hasty decision. It will not take anything away from them. It will only enhance their brand reputation. 

On July 21, 2016, a dozen of heavily-armed agents of the Department of State Services (DSS) arrested Jones Abiri, publisher of Weekly Source, outside his office at 288 Chief Melford Okilo Expressway, Yenagoa, Bayelsa State. Eyewitnesses then said the SSS agents, who came in three cars, did not produce a warrant before handcuffing him, raiding his office, and taking him into custody. John Angese, the chairman of the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) in Bayelsa State, in an interview in March 2018 had recalled how at gunpoint the DSS threatened everyone, including journalists, not to cross a parameter line. The DSS operatives spent hours searching Jones’ office before carting away his computer and documents. They sealed his office. He was handcuffed as they took him away. There were not many follow-up stories on the Abiri saga in the news media.  

“I was personally there when he was taken away. I tried to ask what was the problem and I was rebuffed with their guns. I was threatened with a gunshot if I came any closer. Everybody was scared,” Angese recalled the July 21 arrest of Jones. 

Specifically, two days after his arrest (July 23, 2016), the DSS released a statement alleging that Jones was a militant named General Akotebe Darikoro, operating under the nom-de-guerre ‘General Kill and Bury’, the leader of the Joint Niger Delta Liberation Force, “which has been furthering separatist tendencies in connivance with other criminal gangs in the Niger Delta region.”

The DSS said Jones “confessed and owned up” to vandalising and bombing oil pipelines belonging to international oil companies, Agip and Shell in early July 2016, sending threat messages to management of both oil companies demanding a total of N750 million payment, threatening to launch missile attacks against the Presidential Villa and selected targets in Abuja, and masterminding the rumour in 2016 that the military was planning a coup against Buhari.

But the origin of Jones’ woes: Weekly Source, a local tabloid, which operated by mostly sourcing and publishing critical stories of the government culled from online and national newspapers, had in its last edition dated July 10, 2016 published as its lead story originally published by the online titled, ‘Rumble In The Military: Inside The Coup Plot Story… Militants’ Warning Alters Plot’. 

The story elaborated an alleged conspiracy that top military officers working with politicians had approached the JNDLF militant group to intensify bombing pipelines as a justification to overthrow President Buhari. The military denied the allegations.

Jones’ magazine, Weekly Source in the same edition published another story sourced from on how President Buhari’s loyalists, including the director general of the DSS, were blocking investigations into an oil and gas company implicated by the anti-graft Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) in siphoning billions of dollars in fraudulent oil deals. The story claimed that the company had donated heavily towards Buhari’s 2015 presidential campaign through loyalists.

So, for two years, the DSS rebuffed all efforts by Jones’ family, lawyers, journalists and civil society actors to get any information on him. In tears then, 80-year-old Mama Abiri, Jones’ mother once undressed, before strangers, family and friends alike, clasped her frail breasts, and cried inconsolably, naked. With emotions only a mother could express, Mama cried in the native Ijaw language, calling on Nigeria’s President, Muhammadu Buhari, to feel her pain and hear her plea: “Please, I am begging. Please, pity me. Anyone that is holding my son, please release him for me,” Mama cried. “I gave birth to him. I breast-fed him. I know my son. He is not a militant. He is not a criminal. He is a journalist”. She added. So, Abiri with a wife and five children who would have celebrated his 50th birthday on June 4, 2018 was kept for two years in a DSS dungeon. Which was why The Guardian editorial titled, ‘Why Did FG Lie to IPI’ July 26, 2018 had asked this rhetorical question:
“…With this cloud of witnesses and circumstances, how did the authorities in Nigeria claim to the IPI in this time and age that Jones, a publisher of a local magazine was not a journalist and so had been detained because he was a suspected ‘pipeline vandal…”

That was the highpoint of the June 21, 2016 cover-up by the federal government in Abuja when a Vienna-based world journalism body, the International Press Institute (IPI), demanded release of a journalist who had then been kept in the Department of State Services (DSS) detention for two years.  The IPI, a global body of journalists, which seeks to promote press freedom and protection of journalists all over the world had during its Congress under a theme: “Why Good Journalism Matters” in Abuja (June 21-23, 2018), had among others demanded release of a journalist, Jones Abiri, at the State House banquet hall in Abuja where Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari declared it open on June 21, 2018. 

But curiously, instead of telling the truth, Nigeria’s Information Minister, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, who was at the opening ceremony covered up the detention of citizen Abiri when he told the nation and the IPI that no journalist was in detention in Nigeria. He had added a curious rider that after a thorough investigation from all security and intelligence departments of the federal government, there was a case of somebody “who had been a guest of the State Security Service.” The Information Minister specifically told the nation in the presence of the President that the detained person was not a journalist, after all. And the government complicated the matter when it described the detained and guest of the DSS as a “pipeline vandal.” 

What was more curious, the embarrassing cover-up by the federal government was reinforced the following day at Transcorp Hilton, Abuja by one of the pillars of IPI in Nigeria, Alhaji Funtua, publisher of a defunct newspaper, The Democrat, which ceased publication more than two decades ago. At the time government was covering up the detention of Abiri, Mallam Funtua was the chairman of the Governing Council of the premier journalism training institution in Nigeria, Nigeria Institute of Journalism (NIJ) the same IPI helped to establish in 1963 when Alhaji Lateef Kayode Jakande was in charge of the local chapter of the same IPI. 

Besides, the same IPI in a closing statement in Abuja had demanded probe of death of three Nigerian journalists in 2017. The global body also urged the Nigerian government to expedite investigations and bring to justice, the killers of three Nigerian journalists in 2017. The three slain journalists were Famous Giobaro of Bayelsa State-owned radio station—Glory FM 97.1; Lawrence Okojie of Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) Benin and Ikechukwu Onubogu of Anambra State Broadcasting Service (ABS). 

Meanwhile, as revealed by Abdu Rafiu, an authoritative columnist in The Guardian last Thursday,
Ismaila Isa had been artfully sold to Nigerians and the media in particular as a defender of press freedom and as a board member of IPI in global context. The shadowy, veteran columnist urged that the claim should be taken with a pinch of salt. The authoritative columnist, one of the oldest in the newspaper revealed that in 1994, The Democrat Funtua curiously acquired spearheaded a campaign for government clampdown on The Guardian. That was when the newspaper published a scoop on the presidency and raging battle to control the levers of power inside Aso presidential villa on Sunday, August 14, 1994. Joined by Today, a newspaper founded by the late Abadina Coomaise, The Democrat also pressed for the sack of Mr. Alex Ibru, publisher of The Guardian from Abacha’s government. In an editorial titled, “Ibru, Time to Go,” The Democrat claimed that The Guardian “propagates a sectional agenda that is a little to the east today and a bit more to the west tomorrow, but decidedly anti-north everyday.” Specifically, on August 15, 1994, Sani Abacha heeding the call closed down The Guardian for one year. It was not to return to the newsstands until October 1, 1995. 

So, from all these antecedents, how can we dress Ismaila Isa Funtua whose newspaper in 1994 asked a military dictator to clamp down on an independent newspaper, and in 2018 helped a government to sustain a lie to the IPI that no journalist was in detention when he knew that journalist Jones Abiri had been in DSS detention for two years, as a fighter for freedom? Our leaders in NPO should meet quickly to reverse their rash decision, lest we will face the harsh verdict of history. We should continue this discussion point beyond this week. There are other faces of the Funtua Inside Stuff will reveal to you too.