Buratai: Subjudice, Sahara Reporters and Professional Abuses *by Femi Oyewale
There are growing concerns about what appears to be persistent and flagrant abuses of the law and theory of subjudice within the media space by Sahara Reporters, an online media platform. In many climes, subjudice is tied to the right to freedom of expression and that of the press.
In Nigeria, for instance, Section 39 (1) of the constitution, as altered, provides that “Every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas, and information without interference. However, Section 39 (3) provides that nothing in this section shall invalidate any reasonably justifiable law in a democratic society, especially to maintain the authority and independence of courts.
In a simple explanation, Subjudice, as a legal principle, emphasises that to maintain the authority and independence of the Courts matters before the courts should be freed from comments likely to prejudice the determination of the case. Put differently. It means that when a legal matter has come under the jurisdiction of a court, nobody, including the press and other media, should interfere by either publication or public comment.
This legal caution is the reason democratic enthusiasts and media professionals have expressed concerns over Sahara Reporters’ penchants for consistent mention of former Chief of Army Staff, Lieutenant General Tukur Buratai, retd, in its reportage, especially in the mode of corruption and abuse of office allegations against the former Army boss. For instance, around the middle of 2022, General Tukur Buratai (retired) took publisher Omoyele Sowore before a High Court of the Federal Capital Territory over an allegation of false publication.
In his prayers, Buratai sought N10 billion damages because, according to him, Sowore, the publisher of Sahara Reporters, a United States-based online medium, linked him to a report that the anti-graft agency, Independent Corrupt Practices and other related OffencesCommission, found billions of currency notes in local and foreign denominations at an apartment in Abuja.
According to Buratai in suit number FCT/HC/CV/252/2022 filed through his lawyer, Dr Reuben Atabo, SAN, Sowore and his medium should be restrained from further publishing or caused to publish any defamatory publication against him. The senior advocate prayed the court for the following reliefs: A declaration that the defendant’s publication dated 23rd day of June 2022 with the caption “EXCLUSIVE: Anti-graft Agency, ICPC Uncovers Billions in Cash Meant for Arms, Ammunition To Fight Boko Haram In Abuja Home of the former Chief of Army Staff, Buratai amounts to defamation of the Claimant’s character, an order mandating the defendant to retract the said publication with a public apology which must be published in two national dailies and on the defendant’s online platform where the defamatory publication was made. An injunction restraining the defendant whether by themselves, servants, agents or otherwise, from further publishing or causing to be published the said or similar words defamatory of the claimant, damages in the sum of N10 billion being general and aggravated damages for libellous wordsfalsely, maliciously and recklessly published by the defendant of and concerning the claimant in the online publication. However, and curiously so, Sahara Reporters, in its recent publications, does not seem to have adhered to this noble professional principle nor respect for rule of law.
On Thursday, May 11, in an article titled Ex-Army Chief, Buratai Sues SaharaReporters for Exposing Recovery of Billions of Naira meant for Arms, Ammunition in Abuja House and on Monday, May 15, in an article titled “Amid Claims of Open Court Martial, Nigerian Army Bars Journalists from Covering Trial of Maj. Gen. Mohammed, Who Exposed How Buratai Used Army Property Firm to Obtain Saudi Citizenship, Fund Wives’ Trips.“ Obviously, these unfounded allegations and malicious reports, are directly aimed at the reputation of Buratai, stand within the bounds of unacceptable comments and reports given that the matter is before a court of competent jurisdiction.
Interestingly, emerging testimonies from stakeholders debunk these growing negative reports against Buratai. For instance, Brigadier General Onyeama Nwachukwu, Director Army Public Relation lambasted Sahara Reporters over the obvious false narratives. In an official release by the army spokesperson titled, “REPORT ON ONGOING COURT-MARTIAL TRIAL OF MAJOR GENERAL UM MOHAMMED BY SAHARA REPORTERS IS A CAMPAIGN OF CALUMNY” the reports stated: “The Army Headquarters has noted yet another ill-conceived report by Sahara Reporters on a sub-judice and ongoing Court Martial process of Major General UM Mohammed, the erstwhile Group Managing Director (GMD) Nigerian Army Properties Limited (NAPL), who was indicted by a military police investigation and recommended for trial. It is expedient to clear the air on the despicably false report and calculated attempt to cast aspersion on the ongoing Court Martial, which has already progressed to an advanced stage, as the prosecution has put forward the evidence against General Mohammed and closed its case. The accused senior officer has opened his defence and is testifying as Defence Witness One (DW1). For the avoidance of doubts, without being sub-judicial, the former GMD NAPL is facing trial in relation to alleged offences of theft of various sums of money belonging to NAPL and forgery. These are all acts declared as offences punishable under the provisions of various extant penal Laws in Nigeria.”
Also, only recently, the Minister of Defence, Major General Bashir Salihi Magashi, (retired)and Vice president- Elect, Senator Kashim Shettima, applauded former Chief of Army Staff, Lieutenant General Tukur Yusuff Buratai for putting his life on the line to ensure the indivisibility of Nigeria. Magashi stated this in a message at the public presentation and launch of three books in honour of Buratai. The books, titled: “Duty Call under Buratai’s Command,” “Walking the War Front with Lt Gen TY Buratai” and the “Lonely Grave,” were authored by Jibril Baba Ndace of the Blueprint Newspaper.
The Minister of Defence who was a special guest of honour represented by his Special Adviser, Technical, Major General AT Jibrin (rtd) commended the author for a job well accomplished. He further acknowledged the immense contributions of General Buratai, retd to the stability of the nation’s polity and his giant strides in repositioning the Nigerian Army, stressing that his positive chapter in Nigeria history nis assured.
The Vice president- Elect Senator Kashim Shettima represented by Senator Ibrahim Hassan Hadejia, the Chief of Defence Staff, General Lucky Leo Irabor and the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of the Blueprint Newspapers Alhaji Mohammed Idris Malagi also acknowledged Buratai as a gallant defender of the indivisibility of Nigeria.
Similarly, fresh reports have disclosed that Major General UM Mohammed, a former Director, Nigerian Army Properties Limited, is facing a military court martial over allegations of collecting several billions of naira from serving and retired officers for post-retirement houses but which could not be found. This was reported in the Sunday edition of Vanguard newspaper.
According to the report, a senior officer who spoke to on the development said, “He is also being detained because he cannot account for the billions of Naira collected as proceeds from the sale of NA Properties and lands across the country. “To cover his evil machinations, he is claiming the funds were spent based on directives. But he had worked with several other Chiefs of Army Staff had committed other infractions before this final fraud and I can tell you authoritatively that he tried severally including recruiting many Emirs to beg the Army authorities to stop the court martial without success. This led to the present COAS decision to court martial him. All his mates have retired but since he is facing the court he cannot be retired until judgment is delivered.”
These insider revelations clinically debunk the sustained reports by Sahara Reporters which have been variously interpreted to be prejudicial and a glaring fact that the medium is pained and out on mischief…Therefore, it is about time those sponsoring these malicious reports stop and Sahara Reporters should thread the path of honour and rule of law by being forthright and honest in its reporting. They should eschew the camping of calumny against the former Army Chief.