An order of a Kwara State High Court which blocked bank accounts linked to an online media platform, Sahara Reporters, about four months ago has been criticised by a coalition of media and Civil Society Organisations, CSOs.
The group, Coalition for Press Freedom and Whistleblower Protection (CPFWP) made their position known in a joint statement signed by 15 of its members on Wednesday.
It further condemned delays in the judicial process to reverse the order.
The Senate President, Bukola Saraki, instituted the case in Ilorin, where he ruled for eight years as governor, accusing Sahara Reporters of publishing defamatory content against his personality.
The four stories at issue, which included news and opinion contents, were published between September and December 2015, court filings published by Vanguard Newspapers showed.
In a Suit No. KWS / 23 / 2017, the court had awarded N4 billion against the publisher, Omoyele Sowore, and his medium, SaharaReporters, who were the defendants/respondents in cases of libel brought before it.
Consequently, a judge, Adeyinka Oyinloye, had issued an order to the United Bank for Africa, UBA and Guaranty Trust Bank, GTB, bankers of Mr. Sowore and Sahara Reporters, to seize all funds held in a string of accounts associated with the defendants.
The judge also said Sahara Reporters and Mr. Sowore must pay 10 per cent (N400 million) interest on the N4 billion monthly until both the principal damages and accrued interests are finally cleared.
Mr. Sowore had later approached the high court presided by Mr. Oyinloye through Falana and Falana Chambers to set aside its judgement.
At the resumed hearing on September 14, Premium Times gathered that journalists were attacked, including other supporters of the online medium.
The groups in the statement condemned the development warning judicial officers to exercise restraint in pronouncing judgments in libel cases.
The coalition expressed worry that every attempt by Sahara Reporters to legally redress the N4 billion judgment awarded against it had been frustrated.
“We are also concerned about the abuse of the judicial process which has led to the freezing of the bank accounts of Sahara Reporters Media Foundation, a completely different legal entity from Sahara Reporters, which has not been accused of any offence, is not a party to any judicial proceedings and against which there is no pending judgment debt or court order,” it said.
“It has been four months since the judgement has been given against Sahara Reporters Media Group (New York) and four months since the account of Sahara Reporters Media Foundation (Nigeria) has been unjustly frozen.
“We are concerned that efforts to move the matter forward has been met with a series of adjournment which now seems more like a delay tactic to ensure that the work of Sahara Reporters Media Foundation is stalled.
“While we recognise the right of Mr. Saraki or any aggrieved party to sue a news medium, the turn of events in this particular issue suggest a twist that is more than meet the eye.
“We condemn any attempt to muscle and intimidate the press through direct or indirect means, as in this case. Any redress sought against any perceived adverse media content should be done within the natural ambit of the law. Media is not above the law and it should also not be muscled through any extra-legal means.
“We call on relevant judicial bodies to closely monitor this case and investigate the contentious judgment and the resultant garnishee order.”