Posted by From Sufuyan Ojeifo and Funso Muraina in Abuja on
The Federal High Court in Abuja yesterday admitted to bail two journalists charged with sedition by the Federal Government.....
The Federal High Court in Abuja yesterday admitted to bail two journalists charged with sedition by the Federal Government.
Mr. Rotimi Durojaye of Daily Independent and Mr. Gbenga Aruleba of Africa Independent Television (AIT), who had touched the raw side of the government for allegedly making uncomplimentary remarks about President Olusegun Obas-anjo’s new jet, walked to freedom and jubilant hands of their colleagues, civil society and human rights bodies and the general public that described the court decision as a victory for democracy.
Justice Babs Kuewumi, who granted them the bail, said that he exercised his discretion in favour of the accused persons in line with the provision of Section 36 of the 1999 Constitution, which presumes an accused innocent until the contrary is proved.
Besides, he said since the prosecutor raised no objection against the application, there was no reason to continue to hold the accused in detention.
He granted them bail in the sum of N500, 000, and one surety each in like sum, saying that the sureties must also sign affidavit of means to authenticate their claims.
Earlier in the day, counsel to the first accused (Durojaiye), Mr. Femi Falana, in his application for bail said that the arrest, detention and subsequent arraignment of his client was archaic and unconstitutional as sedition had long ago been expunged from the nation’s statutes.
He said that the claim that the “new” presidential jet was a second-hand product, the subject of the charge preferred against the accused, was neither denied nor was any counter-affidavit issued against it, explaining that it indicated that government was not convinced about its action.
The offence, he said, was bail able and urged the court to admit the accused to bail “so that they could go out and continue with their patriotic and constitutional duty.”
To him, the accused did his job not only to protect the President and save the integrity of Nigeria but also out of zeal to pursue a common good for the people in line with his professional calling.
Sedition, he said, was a relic of colonialism and since Nigeria had outlawed it far back in 1983, thereby making the country a beacon of hope to all other countries in Africa, resuscitating the obnoxious law to intimidate the press would amount to returning the nation to its inglorious past.
Citing various cases like MKO Abiola, Anajemba, Arthur Nwankwo and Ivory Tower in which the court refused charges of sedition, Falana submitted that criticism was the hallmark of democracy and that nothing should be done to truncate the democratic experiment in the country.
Zeroing in on the Abiola’s case which was said to be treasonable, Falana argued that bail was considered for the late business-cum-political heavyweight, stressing that it would be absurd if sedition which penalty upon conviction is two years or option of N200.00 fine was not treated with the levity it deserved.
He argued: “Every criminal offence is bail able. Sedition is of less gravity than treason and I therefore submit that the first accused applicant has automatic right to his bail in line with section 35 of the constitution and Article 6 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples rights.”
“I also want to submit that sedition is a dead law and the present charge should be consigned to the dustbin. It is inconsistent with the constitution and (quoting Justice Olatawura) ‘let us not diminish from the freedom long gained by returning to colonial laws.”
“Criticism is indispensable in a democracy. No Nigerian has been prosecuted under this law. If the current charge were in another civilized jurisdiction, the person of Attorney- General would have been recommended for disciplinary action.”
Falana’s submission was adopted by the counsel to the second accused, Uche Chris (SAN) who clarified that Gbenga Aruleba only reviewed the news in the paper as it is the practice in the electronic media outfit, adding that democratic benefits being enjoyed in the country were a result of courageous efforts of the press.
Press freedom as entren-ched under section 30 of the constitution, he argued, should not be compromised and he equally urged the court to grant his client’s prayer by releasing him on bail since the prosecution raised no objection.
Both counsel stated that as responsible professionals having credible sureties, neither of the accused would jump bail and would stand their trial.
Other lawyers in the case were Festus Keyamo representing the NUJ, Anthony Nwakpa who stood in for the Media Rights Agenda, Freedom of Expression and other human rights organizations.
Yesterday’s proceedings was witnessed by top journalists in the country among whom were former NUJ Presidents, Sani Zorro and Ladi Lawal; state chairmen of the union; Dr. Fredrick Fasehun whose case was adjourned in a another court; Senator Tokunbo Afikuyomi and many others.
Justice Kuewumi adjo-urned hearing of the case to July 25 2006.
Meanwhile, indications emerged yesterday in Abuja that the bail granted the two journalists may have signaled their final journey to freedom as the Federal Government and the AIT have agreed to settle the matter out of court.
Executive Chairman of Daar Communications, owner of AIT, Chief Ray-mond Alegho Dokpesi, speaking yesterday confirmed that a series of meetings had been held and would still be held to achieve an amicable resolution of the matter.
Dokpesi said: "I am speaking on behalf of the management of Daar Communication are working at an out-of-court settlement of the matter.
"We have held some meetings with the Federal Government and assurances have been given to withdraw the case from court. So, we are using this medium to beg you, to appeal to every other person, to try as much as possible to assist this administration to exit (in 2007).
"The bail is the very first step towards the amicable, out-of-court resolution of the matter and I think that all parties are ready to come to the discussion table and resolve the matter amicably.
"There will be a lot of provocation. The politicians have taken advantage of the matter and now it has become a political issue. For instance, the man (referring to General Muhammadu Buhari) who brought Decree 4 (now abrogated) himself is now saying that they are using Decree 4.
"At the end of the day, what we did not see is latched upon by most other people and it makes our case much more difficult to be looked at as purely a neutral matter as we have tried to do".
Dokpesi added: "These are trying times for the media and for the nation. There is need for restraint on the part of the media, the government and nothing should be done to endanger our democracy".
He expressed gratitude to Nigerians for their show of solidarity with Daar Communications and Daily Independent newspapers on the matter.
He stated: "All sectors have performed their own roles but the point is that should everybody insist on sticking to his right, that I am correct and you are wrong, and further heat up the entire polity and then give room to those who may not also wish everybody well to capitalise on the situation.
"More importantly, our colleagues and their families, while that process continues, how do we remedy what they have gone through? Should we further get them traumatised since there are other avenues for resolving the issue"?
Dokpesi stated further, "That the Nigerian media has made its point is beyond any doubt.
The point has been clearly made, both in print or broadcast and in court. The Civil Society has also made its point through the lawyers. The Nigerian publics have made their point and the government too has made its point and says it has responsibility to ensure government is not ridiculed.
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