Drop that case, Jonathan

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What does President Goodluck Jonathan aim to derive by taking legal action against the Leadership newspaper and two of its journalists – Tony Amokeodo and Chibuzo Ukaibe? The journalists were charged at an Abuja Federal High Court on 11 counts of forgery and conspiracy. Their employer, Leadership newspaper, was also joined in the suit.

The defendants were charged with falsifying a document entitled “Bromide of the Presidential Directive” and intentionally publishing it on the front page of the newspaper edition of 3 April 2013, knowing that it could “be used or acted upon as genuine”. The case has dragged back and forth for three months now. When the Presidency first expressed indignation over the publication by Leadership newspaper, the newspaper said emphatically it stood by its story. That marked the beginning of angry exchanges between the newspaper group and the government.

In a feisty reply to the statement by Leadership newspaper that it would not retract its story, Reuben Abati, the president’s Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, wrote angrily in a press release: “The circulation of a fictitious ‘presidential directive’ that seeks in the main to cause civil strife, engender a breakdown of law and order, and negate the values of our democracy is a very grievous act indeed that should not be ignored. At its core, such a disruptive act erodes the ethos of governance and professionalism and naturally stirs up those entrusted with the protection of law and order; as it should also, every responsible citizen, interest group and the entire media. In that regard, President Jonathan did not have to issue any orders before those who have as much constitutional responsibility as the media; that is, the police, see the need to act in the public interest.”

While the government believed it had valid grounds to express outrage over the publication, the Leadership newspaper said the government was overstating the case. The newspaper was not willing to admit it erred and the government was adamant it had a clear case of forgery. The two sides were not prepared to engage in meaningful dialogue.

Charges were first laid against the journalists and Leadership newspaper in mid-April 2013. On 2 May this year, the case was dropped after the initial six charges were withdrawn by the prosecution counsel. The accused journalists thought the allegations against them were over. Not so, it seems. One month later (June 2013), the Federal Government returned to the courts with fresh charges against the two journalists and Leadership newspaper.

It would appear the government’s recourse to legal action rather than direct engagement with the newspaper over the publication was designed either to intimidate Leadership newspaper or to extract an unreserved apology from the organisation or to send the unmistakeable message that it would no longer tolerate media reports that are intended to denigrate the character of the president. Whatever might be the reason for the legal action, it must be said the government acted rather harshly and imperiously. If Leadership newspaper had breached the criminal codes of the nation, the matter should be dealt with by the appropriate institution of law.

Directly or indirectly, Jonathan and the Presidency have no business descending to such a low level. Jonathan in particular must be mindful not to be seen to be acting like a vindictive autocrat, who is intolerant of press criticisms. While one recognises the powers granted to the president by the constitution, it would be tyrannous for the president to use those powers obnoxiously.

This is not the first time that Leadership newspaper would be taken to court for irritating the Federal Government or a serving Nigerian president. In 2008, former President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua took the newspaper to court over what the Presidency termed false reporting or misrepresentation of the president’s health condition. The government alleged at the time that Leadership newspaper deliberately published a misleading report about Yar’Adua’s declining health and embellished it with claims that Yar’Adua failed to turn up at official state functions, which he was scheduled to attend. It was that report that triggered Yar’Adua’s anger. It did not matter whether he was in good health or poor health. Yar’Adua was able to direct his team of lawyers to start legal action against Leadership newspaper group.

What did Leadership newspaper say about Yar’Adua that infuriated the man? According to The Guardian (Sunday, 9 November 2008), Leadership newspaper reported on Saturday, 8 November 2008 that: “Yar’Adua has not attended any public function in the last two days…His deteriorating health prevented him from attending yesterday’s (last Friday’s) Jumma’at prayer at the National Mosque. Earlier, he had also failed to show up at Sheraton Hotel where he was billed to attend a function along with the visiting German president. No excuse was advanced for the president’s absence on both occasions.”

On sighting the report, Yar’Adua and his aides were incensed, especially when presidential assistants said they recognised that Yar’Adua attended the events but the newspaper report stated the president was weighed down by his health problems that prevented him from attending the events. The Presidency said it had photographs and other proof to confirm that Yar’Adua attended his public duties.

Olusegun Adeniyi, acting in his capacity as Yar’Adua’s Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, presented a vigorous defence of the ailing president. He said: “There is no truth in the entire report and the lies on which it hangs are so easy to disprove that the only reasonable conclusion is that the publishers of the newspapers ran the report in furtherance of their reprehensible efforts to embarrass the president and destabilise his administration… If it had any regard for the truth at all and made the least effort to confirm the veracity of the assertions in its report, Leadership newspaper would know that the claim that Yar’Adua has not attended any public function in the last two days is a big lie.”

Adeniyi’s strong denial of Leadership newspaper’s report showed the Presidency took the newspaper report as the hallmark of disrespect for the president. You could see a similar pattern in the serious tone with which Reuben Abati responded to the alleged offence committed by Leadership newspaper against President Jonathan.

In modern democracy, it is regarded as out of place for a serving president or prime minister to take legal action against a newspaper, regardless of the gravity of the offence committed by journalists or news organisations. Jonathan might claim that, in this case, his choice of legal action against the journalists and their employer should be seen as a righteous way to express anger rather than resorting to other more high-handed options such as sending armed soldiers to seal the newspaper premises. This was a common way through which military dictators in Nigeria suppressed press freedom.

Nevertheless, the fact that two journalists, who work for Leadership newspapers were incarcerated by the police in the early days of this case showed that our law enforcement agencies had retained some of the remnants of the tactics used by military dictators to harass journalists and to restrict freedom of the press.

This case has exposed the contradictions in Jonathan. Days after he was sworn in as president, Jonathan talked repetitively about his respect for press freedom and his determination to enforce the rule of law. After two years in office, we no longer hear him reiterate his mantra or see him put into practice his prior pledge.

Jonathan’s decision to take legal action against two journalists and their employer has obvious consequences for journalism practice in Nigeria and for the nation. The public can expect Jonathan to focus not on matters that require urgent state attention but on personal matters that contribute nothing to the advancement of the nation. Jonathan’s tenacity in taking journalists to court suggests that he will dedicate his precious time to screening daily newspaper reports in search of matters he might consider offensive to the president. Will Jonathan and his advisers be able to set aside valuable time to scrutinise newspaper pages in search of enemies?

There is even a more serious reason Jonathan should drop the legal action against the two journalists employed by Leadership newspaper. Jonathan, like state governors, enjoys immunity from prosecution. Immunity for the president is recognised in the Nigerian Constitution. This implies that Jonathan, in his capacity as president, cannot be dragged to court to testify in his own case. The president, by virtue of the immunity he enjoys, will not be able to testify in court until he leaves office. The two journalists, who are facing criminal charges, cannot counter-sue Jonathan as they do not enjoy any immunity privilege as Jonathan does? There is no fairness in this case.

Defamation or deliberate falsehood that denigrates someone’s character should never be encouraged by newspaper owners and journalists. The right to publish has never included the right to defame or injure the personality of public officials. Press freedom carries associated obligations and responsibilities. Nevertheless, there are more pressing matters or obligations that should engage the attention of a president. To put it more forcefully, it is not the duty of Jonathan or his courtiers to comb the pages of daily newspapers in search of defamatory material. The office of president is a distinguished and venerable position. It must never be abused or belittled.

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