Garba Shehu, Senior Special Assistant (SSA) to the President on Media and Publicity, has said that Jones Abiri, the man in the custody of the Department of State Services (DSS), was arrested and detained for Pipeline Vandalism and crude oil theft.
Shehu also clarified that Abiri is not a journalist, as claimed, and does not belong to any chapel of the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ).
Shehu’s declaration has also been corroborated by Alhaji Lai Mohammed , Minister of Information and Culture, who maintained that no journalist is detention anywhere in the country.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) had in letter to President Muhammadu Buhari called for the release or trial of Abiri whose report was last seen about two years ago in The SourceMagazine, a local publication based in Bayelsa State. It has however come to light that he was a publisher of the said magazine.
The call by the CPJ and 18 other local and international organisations was further tabled before President Buhari during the International Press Institute (IPI) Congress concluded at the weekend in Abuja, pleading for his intervention in the continued incarceration of Abiri.
Garba, who reacted to the submission of the visiting organisations told journalists that Abiri was being held for his alleged involvement in pipeline vandalism and crude oil theft, rampant criminal activities in the oil rich Niger Delta region.
He said, “On the issue of the arrest and continued detention of Mr. Jones Abiri who allegedly parades himself as a journalist by the Department of State Services (DSS), it is instructive to note that the accused is a guest of the security agency because of his alleged involvement in militant and criminal activities.
“Admittedly, the issue of Abiri had been brought to the attention of the Presidency by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
“As a true believer in the rule of law and the integral role of the media in a democracy, the Presidency did interface with the security agency involved in the matter and our findings confirmed that the suspect is in custody because of alleged involvement in pipeline vandalism and theft,” he stated.
That apart, he said the detainee was not a registered journalist with any of the media professional bodies in the country.
Shehu further stated that there was no evidence to prove that Abiri belonged to any chapel or membership of the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ) or that he pays the union’s check-off dues.
The presidential spokesman alleged that “Abiri’s stock-in-trade and notoriety in the liberalised Nigeria media industry include fronting as a spokesman for militants engaged in economic sabotage in the Niger Delta region.”
He reaffirmed President Buhari’s commitment to freedom of the press assuring that the administration would continue to ensure that media personnel in the country discharge their duties without hindrance.
He maintained that President Buhari does not support restrictions on freedom of expression and the media, and frowned at those projecting that view.
“It is therefore very uncharitable for anyone or group to suggest otherwise or infer that the President was in support of restrictions on freedom of expression and the media.
Also, in a rebuttal to the claim by the CPJ at the Gala/Award Night of the International Press Institute (IPI) in Abuja, on Friday, Alhaji Mohammed said the person the CPJ was referring to was not a journalist.
“Let me state here, without equivocation, that contrary to the report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), no journalist is in detention in Nigeria.
“Clement Abiri, who is being referred to as a journalist, is not one. He does not belong to any chapel of the Nigeria Union of Journalists. He was arrested for pipeline vandalism and crude theft, including militant activities in the Niger Delta,” he said.
In a statement issued by Segun Adeyemi, Special Assistant to the minister, Alhaji Mohammed, restated the commitment of the present administration to press freedom and gave assurance that the media has nothing to fear under the present dispensation.
“In my opening comments at the 2016 IPI Congress in Doha, I said we as a government view the media as a partner. That remains true. I also said the media in Nigeria has nothing to fear from this administration, and that if anything we as a government are the ones who have to fear the media. Also, that has not changed.
”We are proud that the Nigerian media is one of the most vibrant in the world. We are proud of the role that the Nigerian media has played in our long march to democratic governance. This administration will continue to provide the enabling environment for the journalist to function unmolested,” he said.
While speaking on the theme of the 67th IPI World Congress: “Why Good Journalism Matters,” the minister said apart from alerting the government to the indispensable role of the media in the society, it reminds it of the purpose of journalism which is to serve all citizens in a democratic society and to tell the truth.
“If we all agree about this obligation, then it behooves the media to tell the truth, not just to power, but to the people, making it easier for them to get the facts in the right context, thus facilitating their decision-making process.
“But in an era of growing cases of fake news and disinformation, can we still say the media – whether traditional or new – is living true to this dictum? If the answer is no, what does this portend for the profession in particular and the society in general? I am sure this congress is examining the issue critically in the course of its deliberations,” he said.
Alhaji Mohammed appealed to the media to always report the government in the right context in order to give the people the opportunity to make informed decisions.
Meanwhile, the Nigeria Union of Journalists, Bayelsa State chapter, has called on the security agencies to hasten investigation on the alleged crime committed by Abiri and charge him to court.
Samuel Numonengi, Vice Chairman of the union, said the chapter would want to see Abiri taken to court.
He said that as a publisher of The Source Magazine, his publication is recognised locally by the NUJ.
It is, however, not clear yet whether the magazine is properly registered or merely used as a front to cover other criminal activities.
“As a publisher, they have their own body, and his group has made a representation to NUJ. He (Abiri) also has people working for him. They have expressed their concern and we had put out a statement in this regard.
“We want to see Abiri taken to court, not the way he is held. Let the agencies hasten their investigation and charge him to court.