The Benin Division of the Court of Appeal has upheld the judgment of an Edo State High Court which on September 26, 2012 dismissed a N20bn libel suit filed against Punch Nigeria Limited, the publisher of The Punch newspapers, by Arik Air Nigeria Limited.
The appellate court, in a lead judgment by Justice UgochukwuOgakwu on November 25, 2015, affirmed the verdict of the lower court and dismissed Arik’s appeal “for lacking in substance or merit.”
The judgment was consented to by Justices Philomena Ekpe and HammaBarka, who in turn affirmed the N50,000 cost imposed on Arik in favour of Punch Nigeria Limited.
The airline had in 2010 filed a suit numbered B/576/2010 against Punch Nigeria Limited, claiming that it was libeled through a story published in The Punch Newspapers’ edition of July 7, 2010.
Joined as the co-defendants in the suit were a former Editor of The PUNCH and now Controller, Publications, Mr. Adeyeye Joseph; and a former reporter with the newspaper, Akin Oyedele.
The PUNCH had, in the said story, reported that the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission quizzed the Chairman of Arik Air Nigeria Limited over an alleged N10bn tax evasion covering the airline’s operations for the period between October 2006 and September 2009.
The story was, however, followed up with another on July 11, 2010, wherein the newspaper clarified that Arik’s Deputy Managing Director, rather than its Chairman, was quizzed by the EFCC over the alleged tax evasion story.
The airline had consequently headed for an Edo State High Court seeking damages in the sum of N20bn with an additional N100m as cost of filing the action.
Its counsel, Kenneth Omoruan, had urged the court to declare that the words contained in the publication by The PUNCH on June 7 and 11, 2010 were false, malicious and were intended to defame the person of his client before the public.
He claimed that the story was false and exaggerated as there were disparities between the amount involved and the member of the company quizzed by the EFCC.
He also sought an order of perpetual injunction restraining the newspaper from further publishing the stories.
But counsel for Punch Nigeria Limited, Dr. J.O. Odion, had urged the court to dismiss the suit for lacking in merit.
Odion had argued that the reports by The PUNCH were substantially true and was a fair report of the EFCC investigation into the activities of Arik.
The defence counsel maintained that the reports were accurate and published under qualified privilege and in line with the newspaper’s duty to inform and educate the public.
The lower court in its judgment on September 26, 2012 upheld Odion’s argument and dismissed Arik’s suit.
The court held that the reports by The PUNCH were fair representation of the EFCC’s investigation into Arik’s operation, adding that the discrepancies between who was quizzed and the amount involved did not make the newspapers’ report inaccurate, libelous or defamatory.
The court held, “I need at this stage to specifically comment on the first report of July 7, 2010, which stated that PW1 was quizzed. The need to specifically consider that aspect of the reports is informed by the evidence before the court that PW1 was not quizzed but rather the plaintiff’s Deputy Managing Director, Chris Ndulue.
“The question which necessarily arises here is whether it makes any difference, so as to find the defendants liable, that it was the Deputy Managing Director and not the Chairman/Chief Executive as reported by the defendants that was quizzed? In my considered view, it matters not. It matters not because it is not the Chairman/Chief Executive that is complaining of libel but the company.
“That was why earlier in this judgment, I took time to draw a distinction between complaint of libel by the company and one by any of her functionaries. If, as I have found, there was investigation by the EFCC of an alleged tax evasion by the plaintiff and the defendants, in reporting that a functionary of the plaintiff was quizzed as a result of investigation, wrongly mentioned the name of one functionary instead of another, to me, it does not make the report less fair and accurate.
“To that extent, therefore, as long as there was investigation of tax evasion, the plaintiff cannot rightly complain over the report simply because it was some other of her functionary that was actually quizzed and not the one reported.”
The lower court therefore adjudged Arik’s suit to be unmeritorious and dismissed it. But displeased, the airline on December 12, 2012 headed for the appellate court seeking to upturn the judgment.
The appellate court, however, aligned itself with the lower court’s decision, dismissing Arik’s suit.
Justice Ogakwu held, “All the issues for determination in this appeal have been resolved against the appellant. This signifies that the appeal is devoid of merit. I so hold. The appeal is therefore dismissed.”