Sahara Reporters, Governor Okowa and the many accusations against the Nigerian Judiciary: An issue beyond silence

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by   Chukwudumebi Nwok

In the past two months, Sahara Reporters, an emerging online media
giant on news in Nigeria had in five different articles, assertively
attacked the Nigerian judiciary of bribery on a particular issue of
electoral contest involving the present Delta State Governor, Dr
Ifeanyi Okowa. In some instances, it even made very disturbing, clear
defamatory, biased and prejudiced remarks on Nigerian judges as if it
had obtained a license from its New York base  that permits it to
malign the Nigerian Judiciary without being challenged. Specifically,
in its edition of October 25, 2015, it  published  “Delta Chief Judge
Infiltrates Election Tribunal As Governor Okowa Doles Out N3 Billion
Bribes”,  on November 4, 2015, it made public the disclosure “NJC
Judicial Officials Accused Of Taking N3 Billion Bribe Now Under
Security Surveillance”, on December 21, 2015, it stated that “Court Of
Appeal President Sacks Panel Of Judges Over Corruption In Delta Case,
Appoints New Judges”. Again, on December 22, 2015, it reported that
‘’Justice Marshal Umukoro In Bribery Scandal; As Ogboru’s Petition
Removes Appeal Court Judges And Venue For Ruling’’. Furthermore,  on
December 23, 2015 a day before judgement was passed, Sahara Reporters
in its usual bombastic manner released another story with the caption
‘’Delta Gubernatorial Case: Governor Okowa Moves to Influence New
Panel of Appellate Court’’. Then finally, on December 24, 2015 it
carried ‘’Appeal Court Dismisses Ogboru’s Appeal Against Okowa’s
Election’’.

Without a doubt, any objective political analyst, public affairs
commentator or follower of political events in Nigeria’s democracy
would have been very disturbed about the way Sahara Reporters carried
its bribery stories with effrontery against the Nigerian judiciary as
if being paid by a special interest to advance a certain opinion as a
settled matter. In fact, this is very disappointing especially given
Sahara Reporters’ open expression of a stubborn steadfast refusal to
accurately report the matter as mere accusations.  For instance, in
its publication of December 21, 2015, it stated that ‘’The sacked
corrupt and compromised judges whose names were (sic) are Justice J.O.
Bada, Justice P.M. Ekpe, Justice H.A. Barka, Justice M.N. Oniyiangi,
and Justice U.A. Ogakwu’’.  Apparently, what Sahara Reporters tried to
do was to inflame the passion of its readers by trumping an ordinary
issue of perception to appear like reality through a long chain of
accusations against the judiciary without necessarily bothering if the
stories lack balance in sources or contravenes the basic standards of
professional journalism.

While admitting that a relatively free but reliable press is
absolutely important as pillars for both proper democratic governance
and mechanism to check abuses resulting from injustice, it is also
vital to recognize that in all these referenced articles, what seems
obvious is that Sahara Reporters without resorting to any act of
reasonable criticism or providing any shred of evidence to buttress
the alleged bribery engaged in sensationalism  in a desperate bid to
make news out of the Delta State governorship election or satisfy the
motives of its sponsors.  Indeed, this is where Sahara Reporters
crossed the limits of focused journalism as it obviously exercised its
freedom of expression irresponsibly.

The truth remains that for any editor or publisher to write that a
judge charged with the administration of justice has been bribed is
not a minor allegation that should be swept under the carpet by either
the Nigerian public or the leadership of the Nigerian Judiciary,
otherwise such silence will cultivate disrepute and ridicule for the
nation’s judiciary.  On the converse, for Sahara Reporters to have
consistently written that at various stages of the electoral tussle
involving Dr. Okowa, ranging from the Election Tribunal,  Appeal Court
to a reconstituted Appeal Panel, all the thirteen  judges involved
were bribed with specified amount of money  without any credible
evidence is grave mischief as it is not only intended to deplete
public confidence in the administration of  justice and fair hearing
but to serve as gross embarrassment and intimidation to the entire
Nigerian Judiciary. The reality is that if ever there was any issue
like bribery linked to this electoral contest, common sense would have
rightly informed even the giver of the bribe of the impossibility in
galvanizing contacts that would inspire all the judges to grant
unanimous victory in all stages of the trial without any raising a
dissenting view as was the eventual situation at the long trial. For
emphasis, even in a despotic regime or Banana Republic, the
possibility of a party to a case, to flog all the judges into line may
not have been possible without recourse to the rule of law.

Presently, even though this hitherto controversial electoral case
courtesy of Sahara Reporters has been decided by the reconstituted
Panel of Judges in favour of Dr. Ifeanyi Okowa, an obvious indication
that the contents of  stories published by Sahara Reporters are
baseless and false, it is important to state that the claims of
bribery by Sahara Reporters against all the  judges, assaults against
Nigerian Judiciary and motivations behind such, still merits thorough
examination in the overall interest of public good. Indeed, in a
country like Nigeria that is still in a hard struggle to stabilize its
democratic process, any act of misconduct, brazen irresponsibility of
online editors or impunity by any news media against the judiciary
should not be allowed to stand.

Consequently, if Sahara Reporters remains unable to provide
substantial evidence to prove that judges who decided the case were
bribed as it alleged in its many articles, then what it did should not
only be regarded as a clear audacious misdemeanor and be greeted with
silence. Instead, it should be treated as an obvious impudence and act
of impunity to introduce distractions that would hamper the work of
the judiciary which to a large extent in this case could be termed
deliberate obstruction of justice. This is why Sahara Reporters’
dubious attempt to thrust both the integrity and ability of Nigerian
Judges into doubt especially in the discharge of their judicial
responsibilities must be investigated and where necessary be visited
with an appropriate punishment.

What Sahara Reporters has done amounts to reckless, malicious and
gross  disservice to the reading public.  This deliberate and
calculated act to mislead the public with falsehood should be of great
concern to Nigerians and the expressed penchant for Sahara Reporters
to have engaged in continuously writing slanderous articles that have
the potency to derogate the dignity of the judicial institution  is
quite unfortunate as it has not only destroyed the confidence of some
Nigerian people in their justice system  but bred disrespect for those
charged with the administration of justice. Indeed, such an exhibited
callous propensity to deliberately scandalize or tarnish the image of
the Nigerian courts in the internet must be condemned and curbed,
otherwise fabricated news reporting will be believed as facts with
potency of causing gross injury to the Judiciary in the eyes of the
world.

As much as Sahara Reporters may have chosen to ignore facts by moving
from journalism of fairness and accuracy in reporting to a new ground
of irresponsible political advocacy, it is now the responsibility of
relevant authorities in Nigeria to promptly act in order to
continually protect the integrity of the rule of law from outside
influence. The Nigerian Judiciary, law enforcement agents and the body
responsible for upholding good journalistic ethics must take action
that will  make it very difficult for the publishers of Sahara
Reporters to disregard the consequences of generating unfounded
remarks that diminish the dignity and authority of the courts. On this
issue of unsubstantiated bribery against the Judges, it is obvious
that Sahara Reporters has met with dead ends and should be charged for
Contempt of court, perhaps, this will make other online media outfits
act with reasonable courtesy and good faith or stay restrained to the
realm of objective criticism when discussing the activities of the
Nigerian judiciary and other important issues of National interest. It
is good that a new Nigerian law may not be needed to address  such a
matter because the existing laws of New York where Sahara Reporters
claims as its base of operations has sufficient regulations to address
such an anomaly with the huge possibility of revoking its right as
online media publisher.

Chukwudumebi Nwok

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Mary Osaze is a highly acclaimed talent in picture books. She graduated from the University of Benin in 2009 and has since been working in the media industry. Although she lives in the UK in reality, in her mind she lives very close to her fatherland,Nigeria.