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Jim Ovia drags Writer, Andy Briggs To Court…Attempts to stop Biography

By Richard Akinnola

A novel battle that would have far-reaching implication on PRESS FREEDOM and RIGHT OF EXPRESSION begins in earnest tomorrow in Lagos at the Federal High Court, with Justice Hadizia Shagari presiding. Zenith Bank Chairman, Jim Ovia went to court to stop the publication of a book- JIM OVIA: THE GOD FATHER OF BANKING written by a journalist, Andy Briggs.

If Jim Ovia succeeds, the court’s decision would have a far-reaching impact on journalism. Courts can’t actually act as press censors. If the book had been released and Jim has objectionable areas by way of defamation, he can seek redress in court, just like Alhaji Femi Okunnu did against prof. Wole Soyinka. Alhaji Okunnu went to court, suing Wole Soyinka to court for defamation in respect of certain portions of his book -THE MAN DIED. In his judgment, Justice Candide Ademola-Johnson found a portion of the book defamatory to Alhaji Okunnu. But looking at the totality of the book vis-a-vis the small portion of the defamatory statements and the context in which it was used, the judge awarded a meagre N250(two hundred and fifty naira) as damages. That is the lowest damages for defamation in Nigeria.

But the fact is that courts can’t act as press censors.
One interesting case was that of a former president of Zimbabwe, Canaan Banana, who was a non-executive president with the advent of Independence on April 18, 1980. He remained in office till the end of 1987.

A former Methodist minister, Banana was accused of sodomy. His aide-de-camp, Jefta Dube was on February 24, 1997, convicted by a High Court for murder. But the court also admitted that when committing the crime, he was suffering from “diminished responsibility brought about by drink and stress, actuated by the psychological trauma he went through as a result of repeated acts of homosexual abuse by Mr Banana at the State House.

Banana was later charged to court on two counts of sodomy and the Zimbabwean press feasted on the salacious story. His counsel brought an application to the effect that Mr Banana would not get a fair hearing in view of the various pre-trial publicity.

But the Supreme Court of Zimbabwe, in dismissing his appeal on same, held that the courts have no function to act as press censors.

In the lead judgment in suit no. SC 35/98, Justice Gubbay held that “prosecutions and judgments and sentences of tge courts have always been matter of legitimate public interest”, adding that in many cases, the press renders great service by the publication of reports of events surrounding the commission of a crime or an alleged crime and it is no function of the courts to act as censors.
Unfortunately, this “gagging writ ” would not help Jim Ovia because he has unwittingly publicised the book. People who hitherto were not interested or who never knew of the existence of such a book, would be more interested in knowing what Jim Ovia don’t want people to know. However, we keep our fingers crossed and wait for the case to commence. Whichever way it goes, this case would have far-reaching implication on press freedom and freedom of expression.

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