It would seem to me that a tiny but vocal minority is already busy casting aspersions on the conduct of Mr Omoyele Sowore with regard to the interview he conducted with Mr Gbenga Obasanjo or, if you like, the conversation he had with him. Without a doubt, a tinier minority from this tiny minority are doing so either from pure ignorance, innocent (even if misguided) apprehension about the intrusive role of the media or genuine belief in the lawyerly circumlocution of S.O. Ajayi & Co. Yet it needs to be said that anyone who takes seriously the denial of Gbenga and his lawyers needs a crash course in basic logic. Of course, the vast majority of the disaffected are naturally establishment leeches who don’t enjoy eggs slimed down their faces, especially if hurled by one of their own. No doubt, they need to live in denial to justify their fealty to filth.
I have refrained from saying anything up till now because, like most interested observers, I’ve been amazed and amused all at once, reading and watching developments. In any case, what I would have said would have been nothing short of showing solidarity with Mr Sowore and The News by urging them to ignore the hot air that is the Gbenga’s lawyers’ statement. But, I’ve held myself back, because I felt and still feel that such a decision as to what to do legally must be made out of conviction, not induced by external pressures or encouragement. You can pummel truth with all sorts, but when things clear up, only truth will remain standing, even if a little wobbly. The bearers of truth need no encouragement to stand by it; what they need is their own conviction. I was thus very relieved and pleased to read the Falana statement and the decision of The News and Mr Sowore to stand their grounds. I have also now read the statement released by Sowore explaining further what happened at Seme and between him and Gbenga riding in the same car to Lagos on December 15, 2005. At this stage therefore, I am comfortable to jump in and run my mouth like everyone else.
For those who continue to murmur grudgingly about the qualifications of Sowore to conduct the interview being not a journalist employed by The News, (some are even trying to push back in his face his denial of being a journalist when he jocularly described himself as a “roadside journalist”, they need not worry. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights does not mince words when it declares:
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
Section 39(1) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (1999) reaffirms the above by recognizing every person’s right to freedom of expression, stating clearly that “this right includes freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference”. Section 39(2) upholds every person’s right to “own, establish and operate any medium for dissemination of information, ideas and opinions”. So, forget the fact that Sowore has been engaging in advocacy journalism whether as part of the team at Elendureports or alone; the real fact is that being a “citizen journalist” is an inalienable right. Sowore is free, alone or in conjunction with an established news medium, to publish information that is of public benefit. So, having cleared up the above, let’s get into the issue proper.
Gbenga’s case as presented by his lawyers is that he did Sowore a favour by picking him up from Seme and that in the course of the journey to Lagos (a journey that took about three hours), like any other Nigerian interested in discussing national matters, he got into a “private” chat with Sowore on “essentially health related” matters. He’s saying there was no formal interview but a mere private chat, which Sowore and The News have gone on to give “widespread political colouration” and embellish. Now, picking up on this claim of a private chat, Mr Reuben Abati in his column of Friday, January 13, 2006 in The Guardian gave us a little lecture in journalistic ethics, a lecture that could as well have been delivered by Mr Gbenga Obasanjo’s lawyers:
“Now, did Sowore steal an "interview"? Did he turn on the tape the moment Gbenga relaxed and thought he was chatting with a friend? Did Gbenga's mouth run like a tap with Sowore collecting the fruits with a recorder? Did Sowore abuse his access to the President's son? The News introduced him as an "investigative reporter." I take the use of that phrase seriously. Investigative reporters act more or less like spies; they stretch the freedom of information, where it exists, to its limits; they snoop on you; the beauty of their report is that it catches the target completely off-guard, and projects the truth, and nothing but the truth. But must investigative reporting amount to a violation of the ethics of the profession? It seems to me that this is one issue that the Gbenga Obasanjo interview has thrown up.
“The basic practice is that in the event of an interview, the interviewee must be properly informed that an interview is taking place and that the material may be published. Usually, people re-arrange their thoughts once they are aware that they are on a public platform. They observe the usual courtesies. They are a bit more careful, depending on the orientation of the interview. Besides, it is simple courtesy to disclose intentions. But if journalists were to go about recording every private discussion that they have or any bit they eavesdrop on, they will destroy society. If Gbenga Obasanjo had said in that "interview" that he slept with someone's wife, all in the spirit of a frank discussion with a friend, would The News have reported it, and insist that since it came from his mouth, it is the truth?
“The danger of the reporter behaving like a local gossip is that journalists will no longer be trusted. We will lose the confidence of friends. Once a journalist shows up, everyone will be under pressure, not knowing what they will say and it will be reported. If it is the truth, publish it. Fine. But the power that the media holds must be exercised with responsibility. Those nasty things that Gbenga Obasanjo said in that interview could easily earn him not just law suits, but the assassin's bullet. He dismissed his late step-mother as if she were a concubine, her son he presents as an imbecile. His own father, he ridicules as a liar, the man's campaign against corruption, he lampoons, his fight against AIDS he dismisses, his American friends, he presents as insincere”.
Reading the above, I began to imagine Mr Abati desperately ramming those words back the gullet of Gbenga Obasanjo, then turning around, waving a magic wand to wipe out from our collective consciousness the knowledge that we ever read or heard such things from Gbenga. But even if we accept the lawyers’ claims, Mr Abati’s one-sided lesson in professional ethics won’t help very much except we go further and consider the full lesson. The key ethical question is actually not one of personal/individual protection for the president’s son, but one of professional responsibility to the public as a whole - a question of the greater good for the greater number. The Code of Ethics for Nigerian journalists, right from the Preamble through the whole Code, makes clear where the journalist’s loyalty should lie when doing his/her job. While the Preamble enjoins him/her to “always have a healthy regard for public interest”, Section 2(i) insists on the public right to know, stating that factual, accurate, balanced and fair reporting are the ultimate objectives of good journalism and the bases of earning public trust and confidence. On the question of privacy, again Section 3 of the Code recognizes its protection as “a general rule” only if this does not impinge on public interest, insisting that information on the private life of an individual or his family can be published as far as it is in the public interest to do so. Under this Section, the Code gives grounds where such private/confidential information can be justifiably published:
(i) When exposing crime or serious misdemeanor
(ii) When exposing anti-social conduct
(iii) When protecting public health, morality and safety
(iv) When preventing the public from being misled by some statement or action of the individual concerned
What we get from the above is that it is not professionally ethical to conceal or refuse to publish valuable information/revelations on national affairs under the notion of protecting one man, his family and friends where such publication is necessary to inform the general public on the state of national affairs. Without a doubt, in this case, the public interest requirements are amply satisfied by the nature of the issues discussed, the person making the revelations and the need for the public to know. Therefore, rather than feeling Mr Obasanjo’s pain, Abati should be feeling the pains of the Nigerian people who, without such high profile blunders would perpetually live in nation-killing ignorance. Okay, this is the president’s son and it may well cost him as much as Mr Abati has speculated, but would it have been any easier if the revealer of such information is some lowly guy who just happens to have such information, say by virtue of his job or closeness to those in authority? What do we make of the fact that the information we’re talking of here is not provided by a third party, but by the person now claiming it’s confidential when that person is the president’s son and when the information provided is about the president, his administration, his friends and allies and his family?
Gbenga’s lawyers’ statement is pathetically hollow and breathtakingly contradictory. In fact, you can fly a Boeing 777 through it without fuss! On one hand, they say their client did not grant Sowore an interview and on the other, they say their client “regrets the dimension that what he sees as private and essential health related discussion has taken”. Now, how does Mr Gbenga Obasanjo hope to define a “private” discussion when he knows who Sowore is and what he does? How is he going to sustain this claim when Sowore is not in a fiduciary relationship with him nor is he his confidante and when in fact, they have never met before that day? Does he hope to convince the court that as a quasi-public figure (or at least someone in the public eye, being the son of the president) who has claimed by his own account to have, from the very beginning, showed he’s conversant with the nature of Mr Sowore’s reports and commentaries, that it was reasonable for him to assume that a “private” discussion with Mr Sowore stretching over two hours on national issues wouldn’t be published? In fact, how does he hope to convince the court that having refused a request for an interview and having knowledge of the so-called “emotional” bent of Mr Sowore’s other reports on himself, his father, family and a whole lot of other persons and issues, he still innocently of his own freewill offered the same “pest” a lift in his car and, on doing so, didn’t have the commonsense to keep his mouth firmly shut? Why the expectation of the obligation of confidence by Gbenga on Sowore when, by all accounts, he and Sowore weren’t the only people in the car?
Was it reasonable for Gbenga to assume that the information he was giving freely was being given off-record without him making a formal request that this be so before the conversation or at any time during same? While Section 4 of the Code of Ethics enjoins the journalist to “observe the universally accepted principle of confidentiality” and to not disclose the source of information obtained in confidence, including directing journalists not to breach an agreement with a source of information obtained as “off-the-record” or as “background information”, commonsense demands that these ground rules be set between the source and the journalist before such information is given. It therefore follows that we can only raise general ethical questions if Gbenga had said to Sowore he was speaking off-record and if Sowore had acquiesced before they began the “conversation”. In other words, Gbenga just can’t assume that the other party understands he was speaking off-record; he ought to have stated this at the beginning and get Sowore to agree on those ground rules in clear terms before they began talking at all. Obviously, this didn’t happen, because, if it did, Gbenga’s lawyers would have made a song and dance about it. Gbenga Obasanjo is compos mentis, I suppose, but he and his lawyers should be telling these tales to the marines!
In the circumstances, the only arbiter between Gbenga and Sowore is the law and, on that score, Gbenga’s lawyers ought to know that even if we accept their unseemly claims, there is no law punishing a breach of confidence on the part of a citizen or journalist and they ought to know as well that the right to privacy is not one known to Nigerian law or protected under it. First, on the issue of a breach of confidence, while there is a broad equitable principle that he who had obtained information in confidence shouldn’t take advantage of such information, there is no remedy available after publication because attempting to bolt the door after the horses have bolted is an exercise in futility. Thus the main ways used to enforce the law has usually been through the use of court injunctions to prevent publication of such information where the party likely to be negatively affected by such a publication knows that such information is to be published imminently and then quickly goes to court to request that such order be made stopping publication. Even the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria makes a reference to breach of confidence under Section 39(3a) only in a preventive sense. It does not impose punitive measures, but just recognizes that “laws for the purpose of preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence” are “reasonably justifiable in a democratic society”.
On the question of the right to privacy, while the right is universally protected under the provisions of Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the courts do not in practice grant absolute protection, as such an approach would end progressive and responsible society as we know it, because it would be infringing on the duty of the press to disseminate information and the citizens’ right to know. It is no coincidence that there is a strong movement around the world for legislatures to enact freedom of information laws to guarantee citizens’ right to know what their governments are up to. Within the last decade, almost thirty more countries have enacted laws to grant this right to their citizens, but in Nigeria, secrecy is still the other name for government operations! Of course, the court naturally expects journalists or providers of news to exercise discretion in determining what to publish and what to hold back (especially if the latter is in clearly bad taste), but there is a reason the red-top tabloids and their lurid revelations sell like hot cakes in democratic and free societies!
In fact, yesterday (Sunday, 15 January, 2005), a British tabloid, News of the World , dedicated nine pages (front and back) to publishing details of a sting operation it carried out on Sven-Goran Eriksson (the England national team football manager) through a reporter posing as an Arab Sheikh. The revelations are damaging, but Eriksson is not going to head to court because he understands that this is par the course. He did what he had to do, which is try to mend fences with the players he’s damaged in the revelations, roll out his PR machine and his agent Athole Still to condemn the report as “scurrilous entrapment” and then issue a statement countering positions he had reportedly adopted when talking with the “Fake Sheikh”. His employers, the English FA then did their part by issuing a statement backing him. Case closed. No lawyer’s threats or “I said this, he said that” in great details, even when his agent had described some of the stories as “sheer fantasy”. The “Fake Sheikh” counts the Countess of Wessex and Lawrence Dallaglio, the rugby player as some of his “victims”. No one goes to court because they know the newspaper is absolutely within its right to engage in such “antics” as part of their duty to bring information to the public.
In any case, since there’s a paucity of judicial decisions in Nigeria with regard to such issues as above, this may well be a good opportunity for our courts to come up with something. But, of course, all that depends on the charge before the court. I do not see Gbenga initiating an action along this line of whether or not a journalist or newspaper has a right to publish what the complainant claims to be private or unauthorized information or information given in confidence, especially in the situation where such information is given by the complainant himself and not a third party. If Gbenga persists legally on this line, I do not see him and his lawyers having much joy, because, as the British Lord Chancellor’s 1993 “Infringement of Privacy” consultation paper reminds us, and as any court in a true democracy will restate, “the generally held view is that the obligation of confidence will only be implied where there is a recognized relationship between the parties, such as of doctor and patient or employer and employee”. Gbenga did not disclose any official secret that imports obligation of confidence into the matter; he only talked about state officials allegedly breaking the law - information that Sowore is not obliged to keep confidential because of its value to the public. In any case, since this matter isn’t one of preventing publication, but a claim of breach of trust and embellishment after publication, if Gbenga and his lawyers are brave enough, they would likely be looking to an action in libel.
But again, on that claim of embellishment, it would be difficult, considering the evidence so far at our disposal. Gbenga would find it difficult to prove this as most of the things he’s reported to have said in the interview or conversation are things he himself had said earlier and which had been published in the national press without any denial from him. In fact, he actually called up the journalist Eric Osagie to speak on some of these. The difference this time is that he actually mentioned names - he mentioned Atiku, Nasir el-Rufai and Jimi Lawal. But even so, it must be noted that such persons as Nasir el-Rufai and Jimi Lawal have been mentioned in this light before now and such information is in the public space as well. For instance, I have in the past two years exposed the corrupt practices of Mallam Nasir el-Rufai and Jimi Lawal for which the latter threatened to sue me, including getting his lawyers to attempt to harass me. Of course, by the time I told them where to stuff their papers they scrammed with their tails behind their legs! So, there’s really nothing new being said, but the issue is taking the dimension it’s taken now because this is the president’s son talking. It is instructive that those he’s accused, including his own father whom he defended so loyally in the interview/conversation, have not come out to support his denials or his claim of embellishment. None of these persons are publicly vouching for him that he couldn’t have said those things, which is an indication that it’s possibly something they know he’s been saying about them before now behind closed doors. And now that it’s made the front pages, they have no doubt he really did say those things.
Having said the above, I must point out that my main aim is not to discuss the legal possibilities/dimension of the issue in any great detail at least not before we know what cause of action Gbenga and his lawyers would be pleading. However, I wouldn’t end the discussion on this level without pointing out the real legal problem for the press and Nigerians of goodwill. This problem lies in the embarrassing fact that Nigerian libel laws are obsolete and indeed dangerous. Nigeria is one of the few countries where the onus of proof in libel lies on the defendant or the accused! Thus, rather than being used to protect the reputations of members of the public, defamation laws in Nigeria are being used to emasculate media institutions, because the circumstances under which media persons can depend on the defence of “fair comment on matters of public interest” is severely limited where the defendant is required to prove the truth of opinions and value judgments. Public officials and people in the public eye have therefore used these laws to severely damage the press via crippling awards of damages. We all recall how the old ThisWeek magazine went under in 1990 after the then Chairman of Ajaokuta Steel, Mahmoud Attah took them to court. Justice Abubakar Yahaya of the Kaduna High Court slammed N3.5 million in damages against them and that was the end of the road. Unable to pay, their assets were seized, premises sealed up and they closed shop! And what about the N10 million awarded against Classique magazine in favour of Brigadier Haliru Akilu in 1993 by Justice James Oduneye of the Ikeja High Court? The fact is several of these kinds of cases still dot the Nigerian judicial landscape and it’s a disgrace that we are yet to review our libel laws to conform to international standards. Of course, even if media defendants do win their cases, the costs of defending libel charges are usually huge. Mischievous complainants sometimes just institute actions just to put the media houses through the horrors of spending huge sums to defend themselves - sums that are never recoverable no matter the outcome of the case. In a country where public officials capture state coffers and use them for personal ends without challenge, taking media houses to courts just to harass them or just make them spend, whether they win or lose, is the dangerous norm. So, if the Nigerian media is interested in self-preservation, it’s time they begin to lead the campaign to reform the country’s libel laws.
However, even with the above, I doubt this case will ever get to court. Gbenga and the other parties he mentioned unflatteringly wouldn’t be keen to give Sowore and The News the opportunity of using the floor of the court to make even a better case against them, even if it’s going to be costly. Everyone realizes there is more at stake here than the law; they have to consider the political dimensions. The significance of the president’s own son saying these things about his father’s administration is not lost to a nation very well capable of reading between the lines. He may have defended his father ferociously but the man didn’t come out of it smelling of roses. The best they can do is what they’ve done, which is to publicly deny he granted such an interview even where a 7-year old can see he actually did. He himself is chuckling behind closed doors because he really, really wanted to say those things, not only to rationalize or justify his father’s third-term designs by vilifying a potential establishment alternative like Atiku, but also to serve notice to his father and the men in power that he could be a spoiler if they don’t settle him properly. Right now, you can bet your bottom dollar that the big boys are trying to mollify him and assure him that if he needs anything for himself or his friends, their doors are always open, while his father continues to pretend he’s deeply hurt.
Obasanjo may be annoyed, yet he’s only annoyed not because his son talked at all, but because he talked too much. I doubt Mr President is feeling really regretful over the Atiku revelations/accusations or the claim that he’s a man of integrity already preparing to leave in 2007, but who is being pressured to stay beyond that date because of some Greedy Big Thief ready to haul the nation into his Big Babariga! This was all the young man was supposed to say, because that way, he Obasanjo can justify his third-term agenda in the future as another rise of the Titanic. Like all Obasanjo scripts of before, it would be interpreted as a necessary call to save the nation, this time from the “thieves” led by Atiku who’s got so close to the top that it would take only an Obasanjo to stop him. Just like we “accepted” in 1999 that it was only him that had the clout and experience to stop the military or put them out of political circulation, so we are expected to accept he’s the only one with the clout and experience to put the “thieves” out of circulation post-2007! Rather than protesting, we would be grateful once again to the Resident Messiah of Aso Rock, because without his leadership skills and courage, Nigeria would have gone under!
But the young man got carried away and began to use the opportunity to fight his own ‘petty’ battles and embellish his father’s support. He roped in Nasir El-Rufai and the ghostly Mr Jimi Lawal, an action that in one fell swoop made a mockery of the president’s anti-corruption war, which was expected to culminate with the shackling of Atiku to make way for the 2007 self-coronation or, if that becomes impossible, to handover to another of those military retirees that would protect the decadent establishment! How can Baba now go before the nation to say he’s fighting a real war against corruption when his most favoured ministers and their “consultants” are doing it under his nose as revealed by his own son? But the moment was one of psychological catharsis for Gbenga. He knew he had this opportunity on behalf of his father to sell the third-term agenda to the critical press on the notion of real fear of Atiku, but he was not going to pass on the chance of having a go at people within his own family and outside whom he considers as too close to his father, possibly perceiving this to be to his own detriment. So, he railed against the favoured Nasir el-Rufai and his sidekick Jimi Lawal and against Stella and his half-brother who was dumb enough to buy the New York house for which he Gbenga was innocently accused. It was a case of trying to use one hammer to crush so many monsters, but in doing so he lost touch with the fact that he was making his father’s case worse.
To compensate for the faux pas, he attempted to oversell his father’s third-term support by claiming the Americans support this idea and are passing messages through him (now, wouldn’t it be interesting to get him to mention the names of these Americans he claims were coming through him?). In the same regard, in order to paint his dad in a sympathetic light of this old man the nation is using like an old mule and who they would not retire even as it’s evident he really wants to go, he tells us the man is older than he’s claiming, yet not without pointing out he’s “an active man”. He’s forgotten that rather than look at the man as a strong, dedicated statesman who would give up his much-needed retirement to save his nation once again, people are bound to wonder where the integrity is in a man who would lie about his own age.
Gbenga is in search of relevance in the midst of those who do not give a hoot about his education or his ability. He’s torn between loyalty to his father and an increasing, even if not entirely honest desire to be seen as untainted, even though he obviously enjoys the benefit of his father being president unduly. To be compared to Mohammed Abacha rankles greatly because he sees himself as educated, informed and cultured; yet when it’s all said and done his family are living large on the nation and the odious bag bursting at the seams and letting out scandalous “secrets” isn’t helping his cause. That’s why he’s keen to be seen as a lone-ranger. He’d ‘betray’ his brother, half-brother, sister, father’s wife - in short anybody - if that makes him look good. Obasanjo’s family is obviously a dysfunctional one and Gbenga is generally seen as the black sheep by the rest, at least that is the implication of the presidential statement that proudly proclaims that none of his other siblings hold his views. But in fact, it’s the proverbial case of gigantic pots calling the teeny-weeny kettle black.
In truth, Gbenga is very happy with the interview and the reaction it’s getting. Though the lawyers are being wheeled out on a damage-control exercise, what they’ve done really is to confirm Sowore’s story indirectly. If they get dumb enough to find the doors of a courthouse, they would only have succeeded in inadvertently putting another solid nail in the coffin of the morbid Obasanjo project. But we the people are able undertakers. We are waiting patiently because history is on our side.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of SaharaReporters