Court Acquits Journalists of Defamation Conviction, Chides Police, Magistrate over Shoddy Trial

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Mr. Alfred Olufemi and Mr. Gidaddo Shuaib

On February 14, 2024, a Kwara State High Court, sitting as an appellate court in Ilorin, discharged and acquitted two journalists, Mr. Alfred Olufemi, an investigative reporter, and Mr. Gidado Shuaib, Editor of News Digest, an Abuja-based newspaper who were convicted of publishing a defamatory report against Hillcrest Agro-Allied Industries Limited.

They were convicted in February 2023 by a magistrate court, which found the journalists guilty of criminal conspiracy and defamation in relation to a 2018 report published by the medium detailing how staff members of the company smoke Indian hemp within its premises.

The journalists promptly appealed the conviction, arguing that the prosecution failed to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. Their lawyer, Mr. Yunus AbdulSalam, contended that the police investigation report relied upon by the prosecution was issued before the journalists were questioned, and the trial magistrate did not adequately consider key witness testimony and the defense arguments.

The three-man panel of the court made up of Justice M.O Adegbite, Justice S.B Olanipekun, and Justice S.M Akanbi, reviewed the case and ruled in favour of the journalists. The presiding judge, Justice Akanbi, criticized both the police and the trial magistrate for their roles in the conviction, noting that the investigation report was issued before the journalists were even questioned.

The judges pointed out the contradictions in the evidence presented by the prosecution and criticised the trial court for relying solely on the Investigating Police Officer’s narrative. They emphasized the importance of considering defence evidence and accused the trial magistrate of being swayed by the prosecution’s evidence without proper regard for the defendant’s side.

One of the grounds for acquittal was the absence of Mrs Sarah Alade, the former acting Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, who claimed she was defamed. The court noted that Mrs Alade, named as the owner of Hillcrest Agro-Allied at the outset of the trial, was never present in court. It was later claimed the company was owned by her son, Mr. Ayo Alade, who eventually appeared in court to provide evidence.

The journalists’ lawyer hailed the court’s decision as a victory for press freedom, truth, and the rule of law, emphasizing that his clients had fought for nearly six years to reclaim their innocence.