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Libel: Court orders THISDAY Newspapers to pay N200m to Wike

ThisDay Newspaper has been ordered by the Rivers State High Court in Port Harcourt to pay Governor Nyesom Wike N200 million in damages as restitution for alleged libel in one of the articles that appeared in one of its editions.

The defendants in the lawsuit are Davidson Iriekpan, Chuks Okocha, Thisday Newspapers Limited, Leaders and Company Limited, and Adibe Emenyonu.

ThisDay Newspapers had published an article entitled; “With a Friend Like Wike, Obaseki Meets His PDP’s Waterloo; Almost …” and governor Wike had filed a N7 billion suit against the newspaper company and three of its staff.

In the suit, governor Wike had claimed that the newspaper’s publication of June 23, 2020 was intended to damage his character; portray him as deceitful and untrustworthy person.

The presiding judge of the High Court, Justice Adolphus Enebeli, while delivering judgment on the matter on Monday, found ThisDay Newspapers guilty of committing a libelous offence against Wike.

“From whatever angle ones look at it, I cannot but hold that the claimant has proved that the said article published in ThisDay Newspapers and its online version of 23rd of June 2020 were purely defamatory of the claimant and he has been injured in his person, trade, professional body and is hereby title to damage.”

Justice Enebeli, declared that the article was demonstratively “false even to the knowledge of the defendants, as they did not honestly believe the facts to be true. And yet in a bid to portray their recklessness, they went ahead to publish the libellous article.

“The claimant, apart from being the governor of Rivers State, a politician, he also a lawyer by profession by calling, and he is a life bencher, an august body of the legal profession and with numerous national and state laurels as evidence show. It will not be just and right for him to live with a permanent apparent stigma of being an influencer of court cases and judges as if noble judges are his lackeys and protegees.”

Justice Enebeli asserted that the offensive article is injurious to Wike’s reputation, his profession and calling. He noted that the defendants were requested earlier on to retract the article and render apology through the newspaper, but they treated it with vexatious rebuff, intransigent, maintaining their stand.

According to him, this is even exhibited in the demeanour and the manner of answering questions by the defendant witnesses during the trial.

The judge observed that ThisDay Newspaper has been in the practice of journalism over the years in Nigeria. Therefore, the defendants ought not to have allowed themselves witting or wittingly to slide into what is call yellow journalism or yellow press.

Justice Enebeli, acknowledged that the Nigerian constitution guarantees freedom of expression and freedom of the press to disseminate information. But such freedom, he insisted, requires special responsibilities which may subject it to certain restrictions as it concerns rights and reputations of others.

“It is much to be desired that newspapers, televisions or news media generally should be free to bring to the notice of the public any matter of public interest or concern. But in order to be deserving of that freedom, the press must show itself worthy of it. A free press cannot be deserving of that appellation unless it is responsible press.”

After considering all factors in the suit, Justice Enebeli awarded the damage sum of N200M as against the sum of N7 billion Wike asked for.

“And for the avoidance of doubt, I hereby adjudge, declare and order as follows; the defendants are to pay N200m as against N7B being damages for libel, written and published on and concerning the claimant by the defendants in ThisDay Newspapers on 23rd June 2020.”

Justice Enebeli, issued mandatory injunction to ThisDay Newspapers to publish a retraction of the article on its front page while also publishing an apology on the back page in two separate editions.

The mandatory injunction also demanded that ThisDay stopped publication of the same article or any material similar to it in its newspaper.

“An order of mandatory injunction compelling the defendant to withdraw, retract and recant the said publication. The retraction to be published in the front page as well as to publish an apology in terms acceptable, publishable in the said two consecutive edition of ThisDay Newspapers.

“An order of injunction is hereby made restraining the defendant by themselves or by their servants, agents, privies and associates from publishing the same libel or similar libel or in any manner as soever and whatsoever, continue to circulate the same libel or similar libel of that sort concerning the claimant. Parties are reminded of their right of appeal.”

Speaking to journalists after the judgement, Counsel to the claimant, Mark Agwu, said even though they had asked for N7 billion for the damages caused, they have accepted the N200m as ruled by the court.

Agwu explained that while in court, when witnesses were still appearing, he and his team had pleaded that ThisDay Newspapers render an unreserved apology to show that they made a mistake with the publication, but they refused with the claim that it was a privileged communication they made.

“If you listen to His Excellency when he testified, he said there is no amount of money that can actually assuage the damage done to his good name.

“And the court in its wisdom, though he was asking for N7Billion, decided to award partly sum of N200,000,000.00, with the instruction that they are restrain from further publication of such libelous material and they will also publish such apology in two editions of their publication.”

Also speaking to journalists, counsel to ThisDay Newspapers Limited, Odum C. Eyiba, said he will apply for a copy of the judgment, study it and advise his client appropriately.