The Federal High Court in Lagos on Friday granted an interim injunction restraining the National Assembly from compelling The Nation’s editor, Gbenga Omotoso, and a correspondent, Imam Bello, to appear before the Senate Committee on Ethics, Privileges and Public Petitions over a story.
Justice Mohammed Yunusa made the order following a motion ex-parte moved by the applicants’ lawyer, Mr Wahab Shittu.
Vintage Press Limited (publisher of The Nation), Omotoso and Bello are the applicants, while the National Assembly and the Senate are the respondents.
The Senate had, in an August 4 letter, invited Omotoso and Bello to appear before it unfailingly over the story: Motion: 22 APC Northern senators ‘working against Buhari’.
The report says that 22 Northern senators elected on the All Progressives Party (APC) platform have been identified as “teaming up with the opposition to work against President Muhammadu Buhari and the ruling party”.
The Senate wrote another letter on August 11, threatening to invoke Section 89 (1) (D) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) to compel the applicants’ appearance.
Justice Yunusa granted an order of interim injunction restraining the respondents, whether by themselves, their members, committees or agents from summoning or directing the appearance of the applicants or any of their agents before any Senate Committee.
The court barred the lawmakers from requesting the applicants to produce any papers, notes or other documents in respect of the story.
The judge also restrained the respondents from issuing a warrant to compel the applicants’ attendance before the Senate Committee set up to investigate the publication.
The order, the judge held, is to remain in force pending the hearing and determination of the applicants’ motion on notice.
Shittu, in a supporting affidavit to the motion ex-parte, said unless the respondents were restrained, there is a great likelyhood of the breach or threatened breach of the applicants’ fundamental rights to receive and impart information as guaranteed by the Constitution.
The applicants said the content of the publication has not been disputed or challenged, nor has the National Assembly issued a rejoinder to the story or made a formal complaint over the publication.
According to them, the laws of libel and slander are available to anyone who feels aggrieved by any offensive publication, an option that is also available to the Senate.
Shittu said rather than react to the story or deny it, the Senate wrote to the applicants, directing them to compulsorily appear before the committee or risk being arrested.
The lawyer said the applicants are seeking to enforce their fundamental human rights to personal liberty and freedom of expression.
He said the story, which is of national interest, was published based on “anonymous but informed sources” who cannot be disclosed to anyone in line with the ethics of journalism.
Shittu said the Senate was trying to compel the applicants to explain the source of the story, threatening to violate their right by arresting Omotoso and Bello should they fail to show up before its committee.
“The rights of the applicants to freedom of expression and the press guaranteed by Section 39 of the Constitution is about to be infringed upon except your Lordship interferes quickly before one of the country’s leading newspapers is brought to ridicule.
“If they (respondents) have any cause to challenge the story, they can go to court and sue for libel. They also have a right to publish a rejoinder. Unless your Lordship restrains them, they will issue a Bench warrant and our clients will be embarrassed beyond repair.
“We urge your Lordship to grant the reliefs in the interim so that they will not foist a fait accompli (state of helplessness) on the honourable court,” Shittu said.
Besides, the lawyer said the Senate cannot compel the applicants to appear before it under Section 39 because the applicants are not a government agency, but members of the Fourth Esta
te of the Realm whose functions are guaranteed by the Constitution.
“Section 89 of the 1999 Constitution does not derogate from the rights guaranteed to the applicants under Section 39. The invitation is intended to prevent the applicants from discharging their duties in the ordinary course of business,” Shittu said.
After listening to the submissions, Justice Yunusa held: “I have considered the processes filed and the constitutional provisions relied on. I hold the view that the application has merit and is hereby granted.”
The judge adjourned to August 28 for report of compliance.
Source: The Nation