BY SAHARA REPORTERS, NEW YORK MAY 05, 2020
Human Rights lawyer, Inibehe Effiong, has filed an application before the High Court of Akwa Ibom State seeking the variation and reduction of the stringent bail conditions granted to a sport’s presenter with XL 106.9 FM in Uyo, Mr. Kufre Carter, who was arrested on Monday, 27th April, 2020 by the Department of State Services (DSS) for allegedly defaming the State Commissioner for Health, Dr. Dominic Ukpong.
Mr. Carter was arrested and detained by the DSS after he honored their invitation over a purported private phone conversation which the DSS accused the journalist of having with an anonymous medical doctor.
In the said audio conversation which was leaked by unknown persons, the Commissioner for Health was criticized for their poor handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in the State. Angered by the criticism, the Dr. Ukpong instigated the DSS to arrest and detain Mr. Carter for defamation of character.
After detaining the journalist beyond 48 hours and denying him access to his lawyers, the DSS took the sport’s presenter to a Chief Magistrates’ Court where he was arraigned on a three count charge bothering on defamation.
Surprisingly, the presiding Chief Magistrate, Winifred M. Umohandy Esq., granted the journalist bail on very stringent conditions. The Chief Magistrate admitted him to bail in the sum of Three Million Naira (N3, 000,000.00) with one surety in like sum.
Chief Magistrate Umohandy insisted that the surety must be either a Permanent Secretary with the Akwa Ibom State Government or a Civil of Grade Level 17. Mr. Carter was also asked to obtain a letter from the Village Head attesting to his identity and submit it to the court as part of his bail conditions.
Following their inability to perfect the bail conditions, Effiong whose law firm is representing the journalist in court immediately filed a Motion on Notice the following being Thursday, 30th April, 2020, at the Akwa Ibom State High Court praying for an order “discharging and or varying the order of release on bail of the Accused person/Applicant made on the 29th April, 2020 by the Chief Magistrates’ Court of Akwa Ibom State (Coram: Winifred M. Umohandy, ESQ. – Chief Magistrate Grade II) in Charge No: MU/255C/2020 and substituting same for the most liberal terms possible.”
In the 20 pages court documents filed on behalf of the detained journalist, Effiong stated that his client is unable to fulfil the bail conditions given by the Chief Magistrates’ Court.
In summarizing his arguments, the lawyer stated that “As shown in Exhibit A, the nominal complainant in the charge is a serving Commissioner in Akwa Ibom State and a member of the State Executive Council. The charge was personally signed by the Learned Director of Public Prosecution (which underscores the ‘importance’ of the case to the executive arm of government). It is highly improbable that any Civil Servant, let alone one that is a Permanent Secretary or of Grade Level 17, will defy the executive arm of government to stand as a surety for the Accused person/Applicant who is accused of “defaming” a serving Commissioner in Akwa Ibom State. In any event, the Court of Appeal in the Dasuki’s case supra has held that this condition has no place in our law.” The lawyer argued.
“The maximum punishment (in the event of conviction) for the offence of defamation is three years imprisonment. It is neither a capital offence nor an offence that threatens the security of the society.”
According to Effiong, “The entire case rest on the allegation by the Respondent that the reputation of an individual, who by the way is a public servant – which goes with the price of constant public criticisms and rebuke, was injured. The trial court is yet to determine whether a public officer who is paid with tax payers’ money can instigate a criminal charge (instead of a civil suit) against members of the public for defamation in respect of his public service. The trial court is yet to determine whether the said nominal complainant has reputation that can be injured. The trial court is also yet to determine whether the Accused person/Applicant made a defamatory statement against the nominal complainant as alleged in Exhibit A.”
“As shown in paragraph 7 and 10 of the supporting affidavit, the Applicant concluded his NYSC in 2017 and is not in a position to sign a bail bond or to secure a surety to sign a bail bond for him in the sum of Three Million Naira (N3, 000,000.00).
“We pray your lordship to take judicial notice of the nature of offence and the fact that it is unusual for a Magistrate Court to impose a bail bond in millions of Naira.”
“The whole essence of bail is for the defendant to be available to stand his trial. As deposed in the supporting affidavit, the Applicant voluntarily went to the SSS office where he was arrested and detained. The Applicant is very willing, ready and confident to stand his trial.
He said that “The requirement that the Applicant should obtain a letter from the village head attesting to his identity is, with profound respect to the learned trial Chief Magistrate, strange and impossible to meet. The Applicant is not standing trial for waging communal war. We urge your lordship to take judicial notice of the fact that there is a lockdown/restriction of movement in Akwa Ibom State on account of COVID-19. As deposed on oath, the Applicant hails from Mkpat Enin Local Government, outside the state capital. More importantly, the Applicant is in custody and cannot present himself before the village head for identification. No serious minded village head will issue a letter attesting to the identity of a person he has not identified/seen.
“Applicant is a Media Practitioner, a Presenter with XL 106.9 FM Uyo and has no criminal record whatsoever.
Pleading with the court to vary the bail of his client, the human rights lawyer submitted that “The courts should always be seen as the shied/solace of the weak and the oppressed; and not as the weapon of the oppressor. Justice should never be too expensive for those who are under the prosecutorial yoke of the powerful or the politically exposed.”
“It is our humble prayer that the legacies or precedents of our courts should never include a perception that a weak defendant who was accused of “defaming” a powerful nominal complainant was ‘convicted’ or punished even before an attempt was made to establish his guilt.”
“We pray your lordship to vindicate the authority of the Akwa Ibom State Judiciary as the Guardian of the Constitutional liberties of the citizens. As ministers in the temple of justice, we pledge our eternal loyalty to the independence and fearlessness of this Honourable Court as an Independent Arm of Government.” Effiong submitted.
When SaharaReporters contacted Effiong on what he expects from the court, the lawyer said he cannot comment on what the court will decide, but that his faith in the Nigerian judiciary remains unshaken and that he can only plead with the court to hear their application soon and determine same in the interest of justice.
The Sport’s Writers Association of Nigeria (SWAN) in Akwa Ibom State and the International Press Centre (IPC) have joined growing voices calling for the release of Mr. Carter. The Minister of Information, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, also waded into the matter while speaking on Monday at the Press Briefing organized by the Presidential Taskforce on COVID-19. The Minister said it was wrong to arrest anyone for criticizing the government over the handling of COVID-19.