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Journalist goes into hiding, fears for his life

(MRA/IFEX) - Steve Uzoechi, the Imo state (southeastern Nigeria) correspondent for the privately-owned "National Daily" newspaper, is concerned over a possible threat to his life relating to a news story he investigated and wrote. The story in question concerned an investigation into the roles of two government consultants, Chief Zeek Martins Nnadozie, of Zeekford Consultancy Services, and Chief Dan Okehie, of Brick-Red Financial Consultancy Limited, in an alleged NGN6 billion (approx. US$40 million) buyback scandal in the settlement of debts involving former Imo local government officials from 1999 to 2002 and 2004 to 2007.

Uzoechi said that, after the report was published, Chief Nnadozie informed a couple of his friends and colleagues that he was going to deal with the correspondent and his family. "He told one of my colleagues that he was mobilising 'protesters' to invade the home of my parents. The outcome of the assault and mayhem on my parents can only be imagined," Uzoechi said.

Uzoechi added that he initially dismissed the threat, thinking that a person has a right to be angry but that when he calms down he can come to terms with the fact that a journalist has as much right to pursue his career as Nnadozie has in running his consultancy business. He said he did not discuss the matter any further with anybody until Nnadozie went to the press with spurious allegations published in the 27 July 2009 edition of the "Newsbearer" weekly magazine, accusing Uzoechi of having a hand in the kidnapping of his wife and daughter and saying that he demanded a ransom of NGN1 million (approx. US$6,400) and that the governor of the state had admonished him for the story he published.

Uzoechi said that before Chief Nnadozie resorted to this means of getting back at him, he had, on 13 June, asked one of the correspondent's colleagues, who happens also to be a friend of Nnadozie's, to prevail on Uzoechi to drop the report about the buyback deal. "My colleague's plea on behalf of Nnadozie was touching but I explained to him that I had already filed the report and that aside from the ethical constraints, my newspaper for some reason was now operating as a weekly and that, by Saturday, production had commenced and it was impossible for an out-station correspondent to call up his head office and tell them to drop a story that had already been slated for publication," he said.

Uzoechi said the allegations against him are part of a prelude to frame him for crimes that are inconsistent with his nature, and that they reveal the mindset of Nnadozie since he would have been aware that kidnapping is a capital offence in Imo state. Uzoechi added that the fact that Nnadozie accused him of such a crime points to the extent to which he and his collaborators are willing to go to eliminate Uzoechi and protect their interests.

Uzoechi expressed his apprehensions in light of this development, saying it was similar to wild allegations of gun-running levelled against an editor for the "Nigeria Newspoint" newspaper (a local tabloid in Imo State) that led to his detention early in 2008. He said that the police, after hounding and detaining the editor, searched his office and home but found nothing incriminating.

Uzoechi alleged that for the last couple of months he has been trailed by different unidentified individuals. He also said that, "on several occasions, my colleagues have had to call me on the phone to advise me to stay away from town or, if I was already in town, to keep away from the newspaper's offices at Ritiobi Street as there were strange people asking after me. Some of my colleagues have also observed that these people apparently didn't know me by face and were most likely trying to put a face to my name."

As a result, Uzoechi said he has had to go into hiding and work from undisclosed locations under harsh and strenuous conditions. He also said he is always on edge, looking over his shoulder and "praying for God's protection."

As such, Uzoechi has called on the authorities, the police, the State Security Service (SSS), the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ), human rights defenders and all advocates of free speech, to help him prevail on Chief Nnadozie and his group to halt their plots against his life and livelihood and to allow him to freely pursue his career without facing threats to his life.


RECOMMENDED ACTION:

Send appeals to authorities:
- calling on Ogbonnaya Onovo, the inspector general of police (IGP), to provide protection to Uzoechi and investigate the actions against him
- asking the minister of information and communication, Professor Dora Akunyili, to affirm the right to speak up and fight for press freedom in Nigeria


APPEALS TO:

Mr. Ogbonnaya Onovo
Inspector General of Police
Force Headquarters
Loius Edet House
Shehu Shagari Way
Area 11 Garki,
Abuja, Nigeria
Tel: +234 9 234 0633 / 0422
Fax: +234 9 234 0422
E-mail: [email protected]

Professor Dora Akunyili
Hon. Minister for Information and Communication
Federal Ministry of Information Radio House
Abuja, Nigeria
Tel: +234 9 234 6350

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