A watershed case capable of setting a major precedent for the speech of Nigerians on social media and the Internet at large is gradually proceeding in an Abuja courtroom between two of the most vocal Nigerian political activists on the Internet, Mr. Deji Adeyanju and Comrade Japheth Omojuwa.
The defamation suit, which was first filed by Adeyanju in May, holds far-reaching consequences if disposed of in favour of the petitioner, legal experts say.
On Wednesday, an Abuja high court granted an Order for Substituted Service against Omojuwa, after several attempts to serve him the court papers in person fell through.
Adeyanju, 38, instituted the lawsuit on the 21st of May, 2015, at the High Court of the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, and immediately made it public.
Omojuwa had published a scathing article on his personal blog (www.omojuwa.com) about assassinations allegedly carried out by Adeyanju.
In the May 16th, 2014 article, which he claimed to have sourced from a third party, Mr. Omojuwa wrote that Mr. Adeyanju “joined a gang known for carrying out assassination jobs.”
He also added that “Adeyanju reportedly fired the shot that killed their victim.”
Omojuwa, 31, explained that he was upset that Adeyanju, tweeting under the handle ‘@Adeyanjude9’, was frequently harassing him on the popular micro-blogging site, Twitter.
“I was in Germany lecturing at the Freie University http://www.fu-berlin.de/vv/en/lv/116663?sm=69108 for 6 months September 2013 to February 2014. As I type these words, I still have papers to grade even though I have since returned to Nigeria. I represented Africa and Nigerian well in those 6 months, addressing panels at Hertie School of Governance, Afrika Haus, the United Nations General Assembly, amongst other platforms. When @Adeyanjude9 today tweeted that I was spending jail time in Germany, I never saw it because my humble self had duly blocked him on Twitter, weeks ago,” Omojuwa wrote in the lede of the article.
Adeyanju vehemently denied the allegations, noting instead that he was barely arrested as a suspect in a murder case that has since been dispensed and he was discharged and acquitted afterwards.
The duo’s online animosity continued for several months before Adeyanju ultimately decided to seek legal redress. He is now seeking, amongst other damages, a compensation of nearly ₦50M, a retraction of and an unreserved apology for the article.
Some of the offences, according to court papers, included allegations that Adeyanju is a killer, an ex convict, a member of an assassination gang, a cultist, amongst other grievous crimes.
Under Chapter 33 of the Nigerian Criminal Code, defamation is defined as a “matter likely to injure the reputation of any person by exposing him to hatred, contempt, or ridicule, or likely to damage any person in his profession or trade by an injury to his reputation.”
In this case, Adeyanju’s counsels will need to prove that Omojuwa’s story, which was published on his personal blog, has inflicted or is capable of inflicting the foregoing injuries on their client. Also expected to complicate the lawsuit is the question about whether Omojuwa’s article was an opinion piece or not. Opinions are not verifiable statements and, therefore, not considered defamatory, and Nigeria’s Constitution places sufficient emphasis on the freedom of speech of every citizen. Since Ejabulor Vs D.B. Osha (1990), the Supreme Court has been consistent about what constitutes a libel.
Adeyanju’s lawyers say they already have enough evidence to nail Omojuwa, daring him to “make himself available for judicial proceeding of a competent court of jurisdiction.” It is however unclear why Omojuwa has refused to appear in court or send legal representation. When Happenings spoke to him over the phone Thursday afternoon, Omojuwa declined to make any comment about the lawsuit, saying he was “at a meeting” and that the time was “not a good time.”
Under the Nigerian Evidence Act of 2011, articles published on the Internet have the same effect as those published in the conventional newspapers and are, therefore, admissible as evidence in the court of law. It is also distinctively important to note in this case that Omojuwa’s piece has been viewed by hundreds of thousands of people since it was first posted about 17 months ago.
The President of the Public Interest Lawyers’ League, Mr. Abdul Mahmud, said the matter is unlikely to have any significant impact on how Nigerians interact amongst themselves online.
Mahmud, himself a social media enthusiast, added that, contrary to what many expect, the case will not have any debilitating effect on the person of Omojuwa when it is eventually dispensed.
“Omojuwa was replying to a false allegation that was previously made against his person, so I don’t think this judgment will go beyond forcing him to issue a public apology and retract the article,” he said.
That the story was also widely circulated on Twitter sparked conspiracy theories that the judgment could expand to tweets.
But an online legal expert, Dr. Bunmi Shomolu, said Nigerians should “fear not” because lawsuits emanating from blog posts, Facebook updates or tweets are not an infringement of free speech by definition, but rather the adaptation of standards from the traditional media to online, and Adeyanju’s defamation case is part of a cogent evolution in the perpetual battle over free speech.
She, however, warned that the matter is capable of either halting or reversing the giant strides Nigerians have made on free speech through the Internet, especially if Adeyanju’s prayers are granted.
“No matter how this case ends, it will have an effect, but the most consequential effect will be felt if the litigant gets his way at the court,” she said. “This could reverse the great progress Nigerians have made with regards to free speech online.”
Print and broadcast journalists are protected against libel by the Freedom of Information Act, and recently, those same constitutional rights were extended to bloggers who have been sued for libel.
Several libel charges emanating from the Internet have made headlines within the last few weeks. The two most recent involve famous bloggers Seun Oloketuyi and Ojo Emmanuel.
While Oloketuyi’s case was against a powerful bank executive; that of Emmanuel was largely considered as a brazen attack on free speech by a sitting governor.
Oloketuyi’s story detailed an alleged adulterous affair by Mr. Nnamdi Okonkwo, the Managing Direct of Fidelity Bank. Although the matter is still ongoing in Lagos, the fact that the trial judge ordered the blogger to be remanded in prison for several days showed the enormity of online defamation matters.
Emmanuel is suing officials in Ogun State after he was physically attacked and locked in police custody for several days over a story he posted on his Facebook page. How this case ends will also feature prominently when the books about online defamation matters are written.
No one knows if bloggers and social media users will be considered journalists, but the recent online defamation trials are merely the initial step in what promises to be a problematic battle over what the law considers protected Internet speech and who will enjoy those privileges.
While the future of online expression may be unpredictable, it is obvious that when it comes to judicial process, Internet speech is now considered a legitimate form of mass communication.
With that legitimacy, however, comes a lot of responsibility, because proscription of defamation is aimed at protecting the citizens and their reputations from the ones who have the power to command a large audience, especially the press. But now that the Internet has given users the ability to reach an even wider audience than those reached by many traditional media houses, defamation has become easy.
Even though Adeyanju’s case may open an avenue for incessant online defamation lawsuits, it may also inadvertently link online activities to an established way of seeking judicial redress with the support of decades of Supreme Court precedents on defamation.
Therefore, rather than infringing on freedom of speech, Adeyanju Vs Omojuwa may actually embolden it.