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Facing the Press

By Julius Oweh, Asaba
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The press, the Fourth Estate of the Realm is critical to the development and progress of any nation and the case of Nigeria cannot be an exception. Though unelected or appointed, the press is constitutionally empowered to keep the government accountable to the people by constantly reporting the activities of those holding the reins of power. Perhaps basking in this knowledge, the Delta State Governor, Senator Ifeanyi Okowa instituted the quarterly press briefing where journalists are told of government activities and challenges.

Thus last week, to be precise, Wednesday March 21, 2018, the Government House Press Centre was filled to the brim with reporters across the state and even beyond for an event that was billed to start 10am, by 9am when this reporter got to the centre, there was almost a full hall. Apart from journalists, government officials especially commissioners and special advisers were fully represented. The Information Commissioner, Mr Patrick Ukah and the chief press secretary to the governor, Mr Charles Aniagwu were effectively on ground to make sure that nothing was left to chance.

As a stickler to time, the governor and his entourage walked into the centre at 10.07 and it was quickly followed by the national anthem and prayer. And from that moment, the business of the day began. The governor wished the press happy New Year and it was followed by a thunderous laughter, setting the stage that the governor was a humour merchant. He thanked the press for the co-operation received so far and urged them to add more ink to their pens in covering the activities of the Delta State.

For forty minutes, the governor stood reeling out the achievements of his government. He disclosed that since October 2017, there has been improvement in the revenue accruing to the state, adding that with such improved financial profile, he should be able to do more for the people of the state in the areas of empowerment and building of infrastructure. He stated that his administration was working round the clock to give support to local councils which are unable to pay workers` salaries. The governor also maintained that his government did not owe any worker. On the star project of his administration, he told the press that so far 3,069 youths have been empowered through the job creation office. Such youths, according to him are gainfully employed and employers of labour.

He spoke glowingly about the early passage of the budget and how that is impacting on the construction of roads across the length and breadth of the state. He talked of his determination to end the Asaba flood and other areas where floods disturb the people of the state. He said that with the efforts put into the control of the Asaba flood and when completed, all residents of the city shall heave a sigh of relief. He clarified the position that other towns in the state shall also have their fair share especially in flood and erosion control.

Governor Okowa spoke of his achievements in schools, hospitals and the contributory medical insurance scheme. He observed that to stem the rural urban drift, three major markets are being built to peak commercial activities in those towns. The lucky towns are Ozoro, Burutu and Oghara. At exactly 10.47am, he ended reading his report card to the press. During this period, the Information Commissioner and the chief press secretary were all over the press centre to make sure that all things went well.

It was after this session, that the important part of the press briefing began – questions from reporters. As is the tradition, the chairman of NUJ Delta State Council, Comrade Mike Ikeogwu handled the occasion with perfect finish. He advised reporters to signify their intentions by raising their hands and mention their names and media and proceed with their questions. He counselled reporters to be brief.

However, the first question from the Sahara Reporter correspondent ignored this advice. The questions were bit rumbling, bringing out a lot allegations about the government auctioneer, the intolerant attitude of commissioners and secretary to government about reporters seeking information. Like a practised statesman, the governor answered the questions raised. He said that the auctioneer was not his relative and that the man has being in the business since old Bendel State. On the alleged bank account where some money was paid to by those that bought government property, the said bank was contacted and the manager denied any knowledge of the account number. On the secretary to the state government, the governor restated his confidence on Hon Ovie Agas, adding that he was doing a fantastic job. When the Sahara Reporter correspondent was asking his questions, there were nods from some journalists giving the impression that they were in tune with what the man was saying.

The case was, however, different when the chairman of Sapele NUJ Correspondent chapel and reporter with The Pointer was asking his questions. Most journalists felt that he was rather pro-government and the governor had to intervene. The governor jokingly said that not all journalists are biased towards his administration. Another bout of laughter followed. The pointer correspondent based in Sapele praised the government for the drainage construction, the building of roads and other infrastructure in Sapele and that the governor should continue in that pace. Predictably, the governor was all smiles and very much at home with the questions and comments of the man from Sapele.

There was another set of questions, this time from the Government House Correspondent of The Pointer. The reporter lamented the state of The Pointer since 1994 saying that The Pointer is on rented apartment owed by the Federal Government, no operational vehicles and facing other hordes of challenges. The governor instantly became a sharp shorter. Listen to Him: `The government is paying the salaries of The Pointer workers. What is the management doing with the money generated by the paper? What are they expecting from us? Can`t the newspaper be commercially viable? The management should invent means to be more competitive in the market like other newspapers. Why give complimentary copies to government officials? If government officials can buy other newspapers, they should also buy The Pointer`.

The message one can gets from the governor`s tone and body language is that the management should stop giving complimentary copies to government officials including the governor. Furthermore, the idea of The Pointer getting a permanent office which land is closed to the DBS, Asaba is foreclosed for now. As the governor was making these comments, I watched the countenance of The Pointer GM who was sitting right in my front and there was nothing cheerful about it.

A Vanguard reporter raised the issue of the Fulani herdsmen and how the governor complained to a visiting AIG that some communities n in Ughelli North local government area were taken over by the marauding Fulani herdsmen. The governor explained that the story was blown out of proportion and that the stand of the state government remains – there is no room for cattle colony in the state. That the herdsmen should obey the laws of their host communities. He said that the three small communities in Uwheru and the police had been directed to flush out these troublesome herdsmen.

There was also the question about the rumoured sale of DBS, Asaba, the electronic media of the state government and that the workers were working without tools. The governor was quick to say that the sale of DBS is rumour and remains so, promising to provide enough working tools for the media workers.

The high point of the press briefing was the announcement of the governor of N17million towards the completion of the NUJ secretariat in Asaba. There were cheers and laughter in the hall and journalists were very happy about it. In giving vote of thanks, the NUJ chairman, Comrade Mike Ikeogwu thanked the governor for the kind gesture and quickly added that like Oliver Twist, the journalists would come again asking for the furnishing of the secretariat. The hilarious side of the governor was once on display as he said that like lawyers, the council NUJ chairman was putting him on notice and again another bout of laughter shaking the foundation of the building.

At 12.07pm, the press interaction came to an end with closing prayers and the singing of the national anthem. Some of the journalists spoken to by this reporter were happy with the press briefing but added that next time it should be interactive, that the governor should briefly talk to the journalists and allow journalists to fire questions about the state of affairs. It is hoped that the media handlers of the governor would take note of this advice.