....Says lower court denied media mogul fair hearing
The Court of Appeal, Abuja, has ordered a fresh trial of the appeal filed against the Minister of Information, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, and the Attorney General of the Federation, Abubakar Malami, in a ₦5 billion defamation suit brought by the business mogul, Chief Raymond Aleogho Dokpesi.
A three-man panel presided over by Justice Abraham Goergewill in appeal No: CA/ABJ/616/2021, argued by Mike Ozekhome, senior advocate of Nigeria, SAN, ordered the retrial after setting aside the judgement of the lower court for failing to give Dokpesi a fair hearing before dismissing his suit against the minister. Other members of the panel that delivered the unanimous judgement were Justice Mohammed Mustapha and Justice Bature Isa Gafai.
Justice Olukayode Adeniyi, had in a judgement in Suit No: FCT/HC/CV/1615/2018, delivered on July 6, 2021, held that Dokpesi failed to establish his claim that Mohammed defamed him by including his name in a list that he termed “Looters of the Nigerian treasury”, at a press conference he (Mohammed) addressed on March 30, 2018.
Justice Adeniyi, in the judgement, had faulted the evidence led by Dokpesi through the eight witnesses he called and held that the claimant failed to prove the publication of the defamatory statement.
The Judge held that the evidence of the eight witnesses were quite similar, giving the impression that they were tutored, with their statements made before hand through the same mechanical means. Noting that the situation presented by the witnesses could be termed: “hear one, hear all,” the judge found that the evidence of the witnesses were materially the same.
Justice Adeniyi also noted that while Dokpesi pleaded libel, all his witnesses gave evidence of slander, with all of them claiming to have heard of the defamatory publication on Channels Television. Justice Adeniyi also found that the witnesses called by Dokpesi, who claimed to have watched the press conference on Channels TV, did not give evidence in respect of the exact statement made by Mohammed, which they claimed defamed the claimant.
Appealing this decision, Ozekhome argued that Dokpesi had proved the essential element of publication of the libel because Lai Mohammed had himself put forward the defence of fair comment, and qualified privilege, which was itself clearly an admission of publication by him.
The appellate court agreed with Ozekhome and upturned the judgement, holding that the decision of the lower court was erroneous, having not given Dokpesi a fair hearing before dismissing his suit.
The three-man panel further held that the lower court did not dispassionately hear the suit and thereby committed a fatal error. Consequently, the court nullified the decision of the trial court on the ground that the appellant was not given fair hearing and ordered trial of the suit denovo, before any other Judge of the FCT High Court, other than Justice Olukayode Adeniyi.