Following a false publication about an Agro-allied company based in the state, a Magiprisone Court sitting in Ilorin, Kwara State, has sentenced two online journalists, Gidado Shuaib and Olufemi Alfred to three months imprisonment.
The duo convicts who worked for News Digest, an online publication, were found guilty of criminal conspiracy and defamation by the court.
The convicts were arraigned in court in November 2019 for the publication titled “Inside a Kwara factory where Indian hemp is legalised” in the News Digest publication in 2018 edition.
The offenses charged under criminal conspiracy and defamations were contrary to sections 97 and 392 of the penal code law and punishable under the same sections of the law. The judgment was delivered on February 7.
Their arraignment followed a petition written against them by Hillcrest Agro- Allied Industries Limited located at Kilometre 4, Ajase -Ipo Road, Amberi village in the Ifelodun Local Government Area of the state.
The prosecution alleged that the published article, according to the petitioner, portrayed the company which is into rice production as a place where Indian hemp is being smoked freely by workers.
During the trial, the company, Hillcrest Agro-Allied Industries Limited, told the court that the article in the online publication had caused the company and the petitioner huge financial and reputational damages.
According to the petitioner, the publication had made the company to suffer huge financial loss adding that “as a result of the article published in the online publication (News Digest) in June 2018, the company was denied a loan facility to the tune of $10,000.000 (10 million Dollar) by the funding partner known as Arab group in the United Arab Emirate and equally lost a deposit sum of $250,000.00 (250,000 dollar.)”
Delivering judgement on the matter after about five years of legal battle, the magistrate, Mr A.S Muhammad said, “I have carefully considered the evidence of PW1 (Shakirat Yusuf) on the character of the convicts as well as considered the Allocutus made by learned counsel to the convicts and I have equally reflected on the provisions of sections 316 and 417 of the Kwara state administration of criminal justice law, 2018. In compliance with the provisions under S.417 (2) (d) of the Kwara state ACJL, 2018, I shall not pass a maximum sentence on the convicts.
“Premised on the forgoing for the offence of conspiracy, I sentenced the 1st and 2nd defendants to a fine of N40,000 only each or 2 months imprisonment in default of payment.
“On defamation, the 1st and 2nd convicts are sentenced to a fine of N60,000.00 only each or 3 months imprisonment in default of payment.
“For clarity, each of the convicts is to pay a fine of N100,000.00 only for the offences of conspiracy and defamation respectively, having been convicted in default of payment, the sentence shall run concurrently.
“Rights of Appeal exist within 30 days”, the presiding magistrate said.
But reacting to the sentencing, the counsel to the journalists, A.S Ibraheem Gambari Esq, insisted that journalists have the right of appeal and that efforts are on top gear towards exercising that constitutional right.
Gambari stated that they were still studying the judgement and will do the needful soonest. They noted that if not for some administrative delays in obtaining the Certified True Copy of the judgement from the court’s registry, “the notice of appeal would have been filed by now.”
The counsel revealed that “there was evidence before the trial court that the police report which purportedly indicted our clients came into existence even before they were invited by the police. In other words, the police had already found them culpable long before they were invited to state their own side of the story.
“Also, an ex-employee of the company testified before the court that he was not only a witness to how smoking of Indian hemp pervaded the site but equally, it was the persistent smoking of the Indian hemp that informed his decision to sever his employment with the company. What’s more, to establish the verisimilitude of his assertion, the same witness tendered his bank statement evidencing the receipt of his monthly salaries from the company during the period when smoking was prevalent. It, therefore, remains a conundrum how the court found them guilty in the face of this empirical evidence among others.”
Gambari added that they believe that “justice will be achieved at appeal so that patriotic youthful elements in the society like our clients will not be discouraged from embarking on their respective altruistic endeavours.”