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DEFAMATION: Court quashes conviction of reporter, editor, frowns at shoddy trial

DEFAMATION: Court quashes conviction of reporter, editor, frowns at shoddy trial

The Kwara State High Court, sitting as an appellate court in Ilorin, has discharged and acquitted two journalists convicted for publishing a defamatory article against a rice factory, faulting the police and trial magistrate’s ruling.

In February 2023, a Magistrate’s Court convicted Alfred Olufemi, an investigative reporter and Gidado Shuaib, editor of Abuja-based News Digest, over a report against Hillcrest Agro-Allied Industries Limited.

The report published in News Digest in 2018 detailed how the company’s staff members smoke Indian hemp freely within its premises, violating relevant laws and health regulations.

In his verdict, the trial magistrate, AS Muhammad, found the journalists guilty of criminal conspiracy and defamation. He then sentenced the journalists to two months imprisonment with an option of fine.

But the journalists immediately appealed the judgement at the state high court, where a three-man panel reviewed the trial judgement.

Acquittal

Delivering its judgement on February 14, a three man-panel including Justice M.O Adegbite, Justice S.B. Olanipekun and Justice S.M. Akanbi ruled that they have no difficulty in resolving the issue in favour of the Appellants.

“We find merit in the appeal, set aside the conviction and sentence. We allow the appeal and enter a verdict of discharge and acquittal for the appellants,” said the presiding judge, Justice Akanbi.

Shoddy investigation

Meanwhile, in the 25-page judgement which PRNigeria claimed it  obtained, the presiding judge took a swipe at the police and the trial magistrate over their roles in the conviction of the journalists.

“I think with all due respect to the learned Magistrate, he came to the conclusion after taking into consideration the prosecution’s investigation report which came out before the arrest and invitation of the Appellant.”

The judges stated that besides the fact that the evidence of the prosecution witness sharply contradicts the evidence tendered by the witness, the report coming out before investigation leaves much to be desired.

They maintained that despite the contradiction in evidence presented by the prosecution, the trial court took the narration of the Investigating Police Officer (IPO) hook line and sinker.

“The shoddy and shady investigation embarked upon by the police must have misled the trial magistrate court to its finding without regard to the evidence of the Appellants,” the judgement read.

“Investigation report came before an invitation of the Appellants to exhibit P6 and the defence of the DW1 were jettisoned for the evidence of the prosecution witnesses. Every doubt ought to have been resolved in favour of the defence in criminal cases.”

One-sided evidence

The appellate judges also described the magistrate as being overwhelmed by the evidence of the prosecution witnesses without taking into proper account the defence of the defendants.

“The defence of the Appellants ought to be considered. In other words, the principle of natural justice ought to be taken into consideration instead of the prosecution’s evidence alone. The learned trial judge got carried away with the confessional statement and PW2’s evidence without regard to the evidence of the defendants.”

They pointed out that a traverse through the evidence on record showed that the elements contained in section 392 of the penal code, which the magistrate relied on, were not proven by the prosecution.

Ownership issue

One of the grounds cited for the acquittal of the journalists was that Sarah Alade, a former Acting Central Bank governor, who the police claimed was defamed was never in court to give evidence.

At the start of the trial in 2019, Mrs Alade, who was then serving as the special assistant to former President Muhammadu Buhari, was named the owner of Hillcrest Agro-allied but never showed up in court.

But midway into the trial, the company claimed the company belonged to Mrs Alade’s son, one Ayo Alade, who later appeared in court to give evidence.

“For emphasis, while exhibit P2 says the company is owned by Sarah Alade who is said to be defamed. The evidence of PW1 at page 89 says the company Hillcrest Agro Allied Industry Limited does not belong to Dr.(Mrs.) Sarah Alade.”

“We are of the firm view also that the finding of the trial Magistrate, particularly PW2, the confessional statement held to have sufficiently established the offence of conspiracy and defamation against the 1st and 2nd defendant is not proved.”

“With all due respect, we hold the view for the above-stated reasons that the trial magistrate’s finding was not well founded,” the judges concluded

Watershed in press freedomYusnus Abdussalam

Nigerian Sketch reached out to the counsel who defended both journalists in court, Yunus AbdulSalam, and he described the judgement as victory for press freedom in Nigeria.

“It is a watershed on our match towards scratching off the shackles of suppression of press freedom in Nigeria”, he said while adding that prosecution at lower court did not prove its case beyond reasonable.

According to him, “For nearly six years, these young journalists fought to reclaim their innocence and I’m happy that the appeal court delivered justice. This is a win for truth, press freedom and rule of law.”

 

Story mainly from PRNigeria with slight modifications.

 

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