by Samuel Ogundipe,
The publisher of the online medium, Sahara Reporters, has vowed to challenge an order of a Kwara State High Court which blocked bank accounts linked to him last month.
Omoyele Sowore said the July 25 garnishee order in Ilorin, the state capital, was “fraudulently procured” by the Senate President, Bukola Saraki, as part of an ongoing libel suit against him and his platform.
A judge, Adeyinka Oyinloye, had issued the order to the United Bank for Africa, UBA and Guaranty Trust Bank, GTB, bankers of Mr. Sowore and Sahara Reporters, instructing them to immediately seize all funds held in a string of accounts associated with the defendants.
The development has been condemned by media rights advocates, who warned judicial officers to exercise restraint in pronouncing judgments in libel cases.
Mr. Oyinloye’s order came nearly a month after he also awarded Mr. Saraki up to N4 billion in damages on June 28.
The judge also said Sahara Reporters and Mr. Sowore must pay 10 per cent (N400 million) interest on the N4 billion monthly until both the principal damages and accrued interests are finally cleared.
Mr. Saraki instituted the case in Ilorin, his hometown where he is considered the most powerful political personality, accusing Sahara Reporters of publishing defamatory content against his personality.
The four stories at issue, which included news and opinion contents, were published between September and December 2015, court filings published by Vanguard Newspapers showed.
Although the Vanguard quoted Mr. Saraki’s lawyers as alleging that Mr. Sowore frustrated all efforts to serve court summons on him, the publisher contradicted the claim in an exchange with PREMIUM TIMES Tuesday.
He explained that Mr. Saraki’s lawyers and associates ‘conspired’ to send court papers to wrong addresses both in Nigeria and United States in order to deprive him of a chance to defend himself before the judge.
“They sent their notice to 142 W. 29th Street, New York, when for a fact Sahara Reporters’ address is situated at 146 W. 29th Street, New York,” Mr. Sowore told PREMIUM TIMES.
“So, you can see they deliberately sent it to the wrong address so we won’t be aware of the lawsuit,” he added.
In Lagos, where Sahara Reporters opened a multimedia facility on Isaac John Street in May 25, Mr. Saraki’s lawyers also sent the notice to the wrong street number, Mr. Sowore said.
The publisher said when he heard that a court process that involved him was going on in Ilorin, he informed his lawyers in Lagos to obtain documents relating to the case.
“But while they were trying to get the June 28 judgement and other relating documents, the garnishee order was issued,” he said.
Mr. Sowore condemned Mr. Saraki’s tactics but said Sahara Reporters’ activities have not been ‘seriously impeded by the development.’
“They blocked only funds in the bank accounts in Nigeria. But our activities have always been run from the United States,” the publisher said
The money blocked in Nigeria belongs to Sahara Reporters Media Lab which is a foundation, Mr. Sowore added.
He said that the media lab was never part of the libel action as ‘it didn’t even exist as at the time the case was instituted.’
“But Saraki used his intrigues and influence over the State Security Service to get the Media Lab account frozen,” Mr. Sowore said.
Specifically, the account was holding the remaining portion the $300,000 grant which Sahara Reporters Foundation received from MacArthur Foundation earlier this year, Mr. Sowore told PREMIUM TIMES.
“We’ve done a lot of projects from the $300,000 so far paid to us by the MacArthur Foundation. The rest of the money is what the court blocked,” the publisher said.
Lanre Arogundade, Director at International Press Centre in Lagos, criticised the judgement as hasty, lopsided and draconian.
“The judiciary needs a lot of caution in entering judgement against the media. This is because we’re looking at the issue of possible libel or defamation which is often used to suppress the media,” he said.
He said the N4 billion judgement against Sahara Reporters was largely aimed at bankrupting the platform than serving justice to the plaintiff.
“When you award a damage of N4 billion, you have gone beyond getting justice for whoever was offended to wreck the organisation,” he said.
He said Mr. Saraki got the judgement because of his status as a highly-placed public official.
“If not because it was Saraki that went to court, the judgement might have been different, especially for an ordinary man,” Mr. Arogundade said.
“It was an overkill,” he added.
Mr. Arogundade observed that the Constitution vested the powers to monitor the activities of public officials in the press, but added that such authorities do not necessarily shield media practitioners from being diligent in the course of their duty.
“We’re not saying journalists should not be fair, reliable and responsible in their activities, but any attempt to make them become fearful will not be tolerated,” he said.
Mr. Arogundade said Sahara Reporters Foundation should not have been targeted by the court as it was not a party to the lawsuit.
Mr. Saraki’s spokesperson, Yusuf Olaniyonu, declined to issue comments on the allegations to PREMIUM TIMES despite repeated efforts by this newspaper between Tuesday andWednesday.
The Senate President was quoted online as saying he would donate all damages awarded to him from the lawsuit to support some media houses in financial distress across the country.