Imo State Chief Judge And The Press

I read with dismay the letter written by the Chief Judge of Imo State Honourable Justice Benjamin Ahanonu Njemanze via his solicitor Prof F.C Dike( SAN) of Nnaji Dike Chambers threatening libel suit against Emperor Iwuala and two media houses based in Owerri (Trumpeta Newspaper and Nigerian Newspoint Newspaper ) over Iwuala’s article ‘the controversial appointment of Magistrates in Imo Judiciary’ which Njemanze see as libelous. Iwuala is a newspaper columnist like me though I don’t agree with some of his views . Justice Njemanze on his part is a man I respect greatly but I am against him in this his fight against the press . I am against him because when a man is placed in the public arena he must be prepared to accept public criticism. Njemanze ‘s libel lawsuit against the press undermines Governor Okorocha’s commitment to press freedom and mar his (Njemanze’s ) international image.

Governor Okorocha has publicly subscribed to a vision in which press freedom is respected in Imo State and Justice Njemanze’s action which reminds us of the dark days of military jackboot absolutism should be condemned by all. What Njemanze should have done is to take the criticism of Iwuala as a challenge to put more effort in his work as a public officer or write a rejoinder in response to the article but he chose to throw caution to the wind .Imo State cannot move forward unless its media can report freely on issues of state and national importance. We say No to any attempt to muzzle press freedom in Imo state.

Section 22 of the 1999 Nigerian constitution empowers a media worker like Iwuala to demand responsibility and accountability of the government to the people. The press is there to watch the excesses of any government anywhere in the world. The press is the guardian of the people as the fourth estate of the realm. Intimidating critics for demanding good service from a public servant violates Nigerian constitution and international norms on freedom of expression. 1999 Nigerian constitution in section 24 pointed out that the duty of every citizen is to make positive and useful contribution to the advancement, progress and well-being of the community where he resides. The right to freedom of expression is recognized as a human right under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and recognized in international human rights law in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

Now ,what is libel? Libel by definition is published information against someone that is false. Did Iwuala Speak falsely in his article? The Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) Owerri Branch has joined Iwuala to condemn the way new magistrates were appointed in Imo State. This was contained in the report of the Sub-Committee of NBA Owerri that reviewed the appointment of new magistrates in Imo State Judiciary. The sub -committee we know was headed by Chief Mike Ahamba (SAN). Anything that is proved to be true cannot be libelous. Since libel by definition is falsehood against a person, do we consider a report of something that is true by a journalist to be libelous?

Truth is the reporter’s best defense against a libel. We also have what we call fair comment and criticism which covers a journalist. The fair comment and criticism defense allows reporters to express opinions no matter how scathing or critical. Justice Njemanze as a public official and public figure should prove to us that Iwuala’s allegation that he (Njemanze) unjustly appointed magistrates in the state was false and that it was published with something called actual malice. Actual malice means that the story was published with the knowledge that it was false or that the story was published with reckless disregard of whether or not it was false.

Fighting Iwuala is an attempt to deny a media man the fundamental right to protest against unpopular and anti-peoples ‘ policies. Justice Njemanze by this threat to sue the media has moved against free speech in Imo State. It is an indicator that he has no respect for press freedom. His attempt will not succeed and his excuses will not stand the test of the law, the test of decency, nor the test of time. We say No to press intimidation. Intimidation cannot frighten the press away from the truth.

We say NO to human rights violation by those in authority and their agents. It is ridiculous that while some judicial officers who are expected to be above board perpetrate brazen corruption are allowed to live like kings, activists and media men who are demanding sanity are threatened with lawsuits and dungeons of intimidation and repression. This again shows that despite the so-called emergence of civilian rule since 1999 and despite the struggle of the working and poor masses against dictatorship and for good governance, some public office holding vampires who never contributed to the termination of military dictatorship are the ones throwing the masses to the gallows. That we are still witnessing a clear attack on the media in this country as clearly displayed by Justice Njemanze is a sign of bad omen for the poor working masses of Nigeria.

Any bad policy of the government is antithetical to the interest of the poor masses and as such any protest against such policy by the media is a protection of the people’s interest as envisaged and guaranteed by the Nigerian constitution.The right to speak against the bad policies of any government is an inalienable right, which no court of the land can take away.We say NO to any fight against the press. Some Nigerians fought and died to protect our unique right of press freedom. We can’t and we won’t forget that. To be a journalist is not only a great responsibility, but also a high honour and not a high crime. I call on Imolites to reject the political repression against the media by Justice Njemanze. I call on Imolites to demand the total withdrawal of all trumped-up political motivated lawsuit leveled against the Trumpeta and the Nigerian Newspoint Newspaper in Imo State . I call on the Imo judiciary not to allow itself to be used by temporary power holders to unjustly victimize the press. The people are watching.

-Kenneth Uwadi, Mmahu-Egbema,Imo State,Nigeria

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