Reporters Without Borders today urged the judicial authorities in the Niger delta state of Bayelsa to refuse to be accomplices to the harassment of Alfred Egbegi, the publisher of the privately-owned weekly Izon Link, by Bayelsa’s politically ambitious deputy governor, Peremobowei Ebebi, and to acquit him of the charges brought against him at the deputy governor’s behest.
“The sole aim of the criminal charges brought against Egbegi is to suppress embarrassing information and intimidate the local media,” the press freedom organisation said. “We call on the judges to acknowledge the purely political nature of this prosecution and to acquit him. The judicial system should not become a tool in the service of a politician’s personal ambitions.”
Izon Link is based in Yenagoa, the state capital, where Egbegi is due to appear in court tomorrow on eight counts of “breach of the peace of the state” stemming from an article on 10 April. Headlined “Ebebi cries out: Jonathan is stabbing me,” it was about the power struggle between governor Goodluck Jonathan and his deputy, Ebebi, over which one will be gubernatorial candidate in next year’s elections.
Egbegi was arrested at midday on 12 April with one of the newspaper’s secretaries, Esther Bekeowei, on information provided his printer, Olatubosun Isaac, who had been arrested earlier that morning. After being questioned for six hours, Egbegi was finally released at the end of the day after Senator Felix Oboro, a former gubernatorial secretary, intervened. He pleaded not guilty when charged the next day.
Ebebi appears to be easily irritated by any press reports of tension between himself and the governor. The day after the story appeared in Izon Link on 10 April, Egbegi gave a press conference at which he said he had received several anonymous phone calls containing death threats since it was published. On 13 April, the deputy governor publicly threatened to hit Bisi Olaniyi, the Yenagoa correspondent of the privately-owned daily The Punch, for writing “anti-government stories.”