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By News Express on 02/05/2015

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Social media is indeed intriguing in many ways, and by the same token very exciting. It is like an open institution where the good, the bad and the ugly hibernate and cohabit, with each competing school of thought battling to outdo the other in mischief and virtues.

For contemporary Nigerians, the social media has become one forum whereby people of divergent opinions converge or rather congregate to market their well-thought-out ideologies even as others are busy dishing out their warped opinions.

It was therefore not out of place that the social media – more than the mainstream and conventional media – has hosted the war of words between supporters and opponents of the recent decision by the Nigerian President-elect, Maj-Gen Muhammadu Buhari, to bar the African Independent Television (AIT) from covering his activities. This decision which has now been reversed by the political platform of the president-elect, the All Progressives Congress (APC), was not unconnected with the less-than professional role played by the private television house during the just concluded presidential campaign in which some opponents of the now president-elect sponsored hate messages targeted at character assassination of General Buhari.

Ironically, the outgoing ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) has joined the debate by criticising the president-elect for his anti-press freedom stance. Interestingly, as the press statement of the PDP hit the newsrooms, the story of the prosecution of some senior editorial staff of the Abuja-based Leadership Newspapers by President Goodluck Jonathan, for alleged forgery of the President’s letter-head emerged when an Abuja High Court granted a long adjournment to continue further hearing. While the PDP on one hand was critiquing the president-elect for being anti-media, it completely forgot or pretended not to remember that this same government produced by PDP is still prosecuting journalists for simply doing their job. Why this hypocrisy?

Those who praise the current government for achieving the landmark of signing into law the Freedom of Information Act has, therefore, asked President Jonathan to discontinue the prosecution of Leadership Newspaper editors before the Abuja High Court so he can end up on May 29, 2015 – on exit from political power – as a complete hero of democracy who took salient policy decisions to deepen democracy and pluralism, including the expansion of the frontiers of media rights in Africa’s largest democracy.

Earlier in the day – coinciding with the issuance of the PDP’s press statement lampooning the president-elect for what it calls anti-media freedom stance – the absence of Justice Usman Musale of an Abuja High Court in Jabi reportedly stalled further hearing of alleged forgery of presidential bromide levelled against two journalists of LEADERSHIP newspapers. The Group News Editor of the newspaper, Mr. Tony Amokeodo and Senior Correspondent, Mr Chibuzor Ukaibe, pleaded not guilty to the charge when it was read to them during their arraignment. In the suit, the Federal Government had accused the journalists and the newspaper of alleged involvement in forging a presidential bromide.

At the last adjourned date of the matter, the court rejected a letter-head paper emanating from the Chief of Staff to President Goodluck Jonathan. The trial was supposed to continue on Monday, but parties in the matter were told that the judge travelled outside the country. The court had rejected the letter-head paper which the prosecution claimed was from the Office of the Chief of Staff to President Jonathan.

Lawyer to the Federal Government, Chief Adegboyega Awomolo (SAN), had intended to prove that the bromide as published by the LEADERSHIP newspaper was forged and, therefore, did not emanate from the president.

The first prosecution witness from the Federal Government, Mr Ibrahim Bako, had testified that while investigating the forgery allegation, he approached the Presidency and was given a blank letter-head paper from the Office of the President by one Abiye White, an assistant director. The police officer said he discovered in the course of the investigation that the bromide and the coat-of-arms did not tally with the document he got from the Presidency.

Awomolo, had also sought to tender a certified true copy (CTC) of the letter-head paper, which the witness claimed was obtained from the Office of the President.

But the lawyer to the journalists, Mr Femi Falana (SAN), objected to the admissibility of the document. According to him, what Awomolo sought to tender was just a blank letter-head paper, which did not emanate from the Office of the President, but from the office of the Chief of Staff to the President.

He said: “What the prosecution sought to tender is a blank sheet of paper from the office of the Chief of Staff to the President. Since the witness has said that he got a CTC from the office of the Chief of Staff, he cannot tender it.

“He cannot seek to tender a letter-head paper from the office of the Chief of Staff because there is dichotomy between the President and the chief of Staff. The document in dispute is from the office of the President, and not from the Office of the Chief of Staff. I urge the court to reject it in the interest of justice.”

But Awomolo in his reply, disagreed with Falana, saying that his objection was misconceived and a misunderstanding of the law. He said the document came from the officer who had custody of them, stressing: “It is wrong to expect that the President will certify documents by himself.”

The judge, however, ruled against the argument of Awomolo and accepted the submission of Falana.

Justice Musale consequently rejected the document as exhibit in the case. The case was adjourned to June 8, 2015.

The long adjournment is somewhat a huge victory to media freedom because, surely, the incoming administration wouldn't associate itself with this case that has been termed persecution of a section of the media. Clearly, the next adjourned date will come up almost two weeks after President Jonathan has exited. So, why doesn’t President Jonathan instruct his lawyers to discontinue this needless case now, before May 29, 2015 when he will step aside to give way for the assumption of office by the president-elect who, incidentally, is a close ally of the publisher of Leadership Newspaper, Mr Sam Nda Isaiah, who himself have had brushes with the security operatives in the recent past over his published harsh criticisms of Jonathan’s administration?

As someone who has authored over 18 dozen articles on issues around governance under the current government, may I appeal to President Jonathan to instruct the Federal Attorney General to discontinue this matter now against Leadership Newspaper, to save his legacy of having done so much to liberalise press freedom in the last five years. Let the outgoing President take this heroic decision and enter the history book as a hero, if for no other way but for advancing press freedoms.

RIGHTSVIEW appears on Wednesdays and Saturdays, in addition to special appearances. The Columnist, popular activist Emmanuel Onwubiko, is a former Federal Commissioner of Nigeria’s National Human Rights Commission and presently National Coordinator of Human Rights Writers’ Association of Nigeria (HURIWA).

Source News Express

Posted 02/05/2015 12:29 PM





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