Former Speaker sues newspaper, demands USD 4.8 million in damages

A former Speaker of Nigeria’s House of Representatives has filed a defamation suit against WikkiTimes demanding the equivalent of about USD 4.8 million in damages. The suit adds to the troubles of the online newspaper and its publisher, Haruna Salisu, who have come under a barrage of threats over an investigative story.

In a story published on June 28, 2021, by the online news portal, it is alleged that an amount of  N97 million (about US$230,000) earmarked for school projects in the federal constituency represented by the plaintiff, Yakubu Dogara in Bauchi State, had been misused.

According to the report, “The contractors that executed the N1 billion Dogara Models Schools project mostly operate in the shadow, as there is no trace of their offices in either Bauchi, the seat of government or at Dogara’s constituency.”

Dogara filed a lawsuit against the media organisation on January 14, 2022, arguing that the investigative article “is mischievous, false and malicious in every material particular.”

The plaintiff is seeking N2 billion (about USD 4.815 million) in “general and exemplary damages against the defendant for libel” as well as an additional cost of N500,000.00 (about USD 1,200).

The Ex-Speaker resorted to litigation after WikkiTimes rejected a letter demanding the retraction of the story and an apology. The newspaper insisted that its report was credible.

The suit also comes after attempts to intimidate the publisher, Haruna Mohammed Salisu, who reported being tracked and threatened by unknown persons in connection with the investigative story.

The publisher of WikkiTimes however remains defiant.

“We are just doing our job of exposing corruption and holding public officials to account […] Court actions, intimidation, blackmail, harassment, and all sort of shenanigans geared to gag us will not work,” the publisher told the MFWA in a telephone conversation.

“We have exposed corruption on several occasions and stepped on big toes; but our stories are very credible, devoid of any intention to blackmail anyone as insinuated,” Haruna Salisu added.

This is the second major suit against WikkiTimes in ten months. On March 18, 2021, a charity group, Al Bashar International Foundation based in Bauchi State, sued the WikkiTimes Media Limited and three others including the publisher for defamation.  The critical online news portal had published reports alleging that a Makkah Eye Clinic operated by the plaintiffs as a charity, was in fact charging exorbitant commercial fees and evading taxes. The Plaintiffs requested a total of about USD 2.8 million in exemplary damages and general damages.

The Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) has supported the legal cost of the media organisation under its project “Enhancing Freedom of Expression Online in Africa through Monitoring, Research and Legal Support”, funded by the Media Legal Defense Initiative (MLDI).

Press freedom is the cornerstone of democracy and a fundamental condition for progress and development in any modern society. The MFWA, therefore, denounces any attempt to discourage critical and accountability journalism with vexatious legal actions and fanciful claims for fantastic sums in damages.

We condemn the tracking of Haruna Salisu in an attempt to intimidate him and deter his media organisation from critical reporting. We urge the police to take steps to protect the publisher from any harm or harassment.

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