By Chukwudumebi Nwokolo

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.

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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.

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