By Richard Akinnola
Dr Obarogie Ohanbamu, in his monthly magazine sometime in 1975, accused the Head of State, General Murtala Mohammed of corruption. Rather than apply arm-twisting tactics of arrest and detention that dictators are known for, Gen. Mohammed, even as Head of State, decided to enter the witness box by suing Ohanbamu for defamation. Late Ohanbamu eventually apologized and the case was dropped.
Also, a former Governor of Ogun State, Chief Bisi Onabanjo, as sitting Governor, once sued the Concord for libel.
In this case, late Bisi Onabanjo, then civilian governor of Ogun State instituted a libel suit against Concord newspaper claiming N1 million as damages. His complaint was in respect of the newspaper’s edition of May 8, 1980.
The National Concord story was under the headline “Onabanjo’s N250, 000 UK fun -governor spends leave abroad at government expense… and tongues wag over huge expenditure”.
The governor’s grouse was that the story depicted him as quilty of abuse of office; that he had improperly diverted public funds for the personal pleasure of himself and his family and that he wasted public funds on ostentatious and flamboyant life style.
He complained to the court that contrary to the impression created by the publication, he actually travelled to Europe on leave, entirely at his own expense.
Unfortunately for the newspaper, it could not substantiate the allegations as it had no facts to back up the report.
The court held:
“Our constitution has not abrogated the law of defamation, neither has the law of sedition been repealed either expressly or by implication. Freedom of expression which is provided for in our constitution is not, in my judgment, a licence to defame. There is no public duty properly so-called which entitled news media to defame holders of public offices (particularly since the newspaper could not substantiate its allegation that the governor spent public money for the trip).
“In my judgment, the publications made by the defendant were not made in pursuance of any public duty. Section 21 of the constitution of the federal Republic of Nigeria does not impose any duty on the mass media to disparage the character of any public officer.
I take into account in assessing damages that the words complained of were reportedly published by the defendant even after other papers have published a retraction.
I also take cognizance that the defendant persisted during the trial to damage the reputation of the plaintiff without any foundation whatsoever. I come to the conclusion that a sum of N250,000 will be fair compensation for the injury caused to the reputation of the plaintiff. The compensation which I promise to award will operate as a vindication of the plaintiff to the public and as a consolation to him for a wrong done.
Accordingly, I award N250,000.00 as general damages for the libel printed and published by the defendant of and concerning the plaintiff and published by the defendant of and concerning the plaintiff in the National Concord of May 8, 12; 16 and Sunday Concord of May 25, 1980”.
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