June 12: PUNCH’s triumph in 25-year legal battle

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In a landmark judgement that emphasised the primacy of the rule of law over the display of crude force and naked power by the government, the Supreme Court of Nigeria on Friday reaffirmed the damages

awarded to PUNCH Nigeria Limited by the lower courts over the invasion and sealing off of its business premises in 1994 by security agents. The court ordered the Federal Government to pay the N25 million awarded as damages to the company.

Refusing to be cowed in the face of intimidation, PUNCH went to court to enforce its rights. Courageously, a Federal High Court sitting in Lagos, and presided over by Justice T. A. Odunowo, on July 29, 1994, condemned the invasion.

Yet, despite the prevailing environment, characterised by fear and tension, by state-sponsored terror and abridgement of basic freedoms, Odunowo courageously ordered the reopening of PUNCH. Speaking truth to power, he thundered, “These violations cannot be justified on any of the grounds that the invasion was done in the interest of security, public safety, public order or public morality.

It is no coincidence that the world’s stable democracies where the rule of law is respected are also the most prosperous economies. A 2016 report by Freedom House, a global rights watchdog, noted that despite a vibrant press environment in Nigeria, “self-censorship, physical assaults, intimidation along with impunity for crimes against journalists remain major concerns.

But the foundation of this farcical intimidation, harassment, torture and closure of media organisations began during the early military era. A correspondent of the Nigeria Observer, Minere Amakiri, was brutalised in Port Harcourt, at the behest of the then military governor of Rivers State, Alfred Diete-Spiff, for reporting teachers’ demand for improved pay; his head was shaved with a broken bottle.

 

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