The Federal High Court in Lagos yesterday fixed December 4 for judgment in The Nation’s suit against the Senate and National Assembly.
Justice Mohammed Yunusa adjourned after the plaintiffs’ lawyer, Wahab Shittu, adopted and argued his processes.
Vintage Press Limited (Publisher of The Nation), the Editor, Gbenga Omotoso and a correspondent, Imam Bello, are the applicants.
Shittu told the court that to date, the respondents have not filed any response to the suit.
“They have neither filed a memorandum of appearance, nor have they joined issues with the applicants. In the circumstances, we seek the leave of the court to adopt our processes,” he said.
According to him, Nigeria was a democracy governed by the rule of law. Therefore, the Senate’s invitation to the applicants amounted to unlawful interference with the functions reserved exclusively for the press.
The 45 days within which the lawmakers were to respond to the action lapsed without them filing any defence or asking for an extension of time.
Justice Yunusa had granted an order of interim injunction restraining the respondents, whether by themselves, their members, committees or agents from summoning the applicants or any of their agents before any Senate committee.
According to the proof of service, the suit was received by the Office of the Senate President on September 1. The National Assembly was earlier served on August 27 through the Office of the Deputy Clerk to the National Assembly.
The Senate had, in an August 4 letter, invited Omotoso and Bello to appear before it unfailingly over the story: “Motion: 22 APC Northern senators ‘working against Buhari’”, published on July 30.
The Senate wrote again on August 11, threatening to invoke Section 89 (1) (D) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) to compel the applicants’ appearance.
But the court barred the lawmakers from requesting the applicants to produce any papers, notes or other documents in respect of the story.
The judge also restrained the respondents from issuing a warrant to compel the applicants’ attendance before the Senate committee set up to investigate the publication.
The plaintiffs are seeking a declaration that as media organisation/journalists, they are entitled to the protection and enforcements of their rights to freedom of expression and the press as guaranteed under Section 39 of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) and Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (Ratification and Enforcement) Act of 2004.
They also want the court to hold that the respondents are not entitled to interfere or derogate from the applicants’ fundamental rights to freedom of expression and the press.
Among others, they sought an order of perpetual injunction restraining the respondents whether by themselves, their members, committees or agents from summoning or directing the applicants’ appearance before the Senate Committee on Ethics, Privileges and Public Petitions or any other committee and/or requesting the production by the applicants of any papers, notes or other documents before any such committee or the giving of any evidence by the applicants or any of their agents before any such committee.
In his written address, Shittu argued: “It is our humble submission that the competing rights of the parties in this suit must be protected and balanced.
“It was averred in the affidavit in support of this application that the second respondent has caused a letter to the applicant threatening to compel the attendance of the second and third applicants if they fail to show up at the committee meeting in order to disclose the sources of their information, contrary to the ethics of journalism profession and in contravention of the provisions of Chapter 4 of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) guaranteeing their freedom of expression and the press under Section 39 of the 1999 Constitution.
“The action of the respondents may occasion great injustice on the applicants.
“We submit that sections 88 and 89 of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) do not derogate from the rights guaranteed by the Constitution under Section 39 of the 1999 Constitution (as amended).
“It is our submission that Section 88 was made subject to the provisions of the 1999 Constitution and it relates to oversight function of the respondents on agencies of government and does not include interference to operation and freedom of the press as guaranteed under Section 39 of the 1999 Constitution (as amended).
“It is our submission that the actions of the respondents in the circumstances are designed to harass, intimidate, interfere and molest the applicants’ fundamental rights as constitutionally guaranteed and prevent the applicants from discharging their professional obligations to the Nigerian public thereof and to forcefully extract from the applicants the source of information leading to the story ‘Motion: 22 APC northern senators working against Buhari’, written by the third applicant (Bello).
“We state that the content of the publication has not been disputed or challenged, neither was any contrary information regarding thereto made available by the respondent to the applicants for publication and there has been no formal complaint by the respondents to the applicants regarding the content of the referred publication.
“It is not open to the National Assembly or any of its committees to clothe itself with the aprons of the courts and purport to make decision on issues of legal rights and liabilities in blatant breach of the rule of the separation of power.
“The National Assembly has no power to make judicial decision, with judgmental flavour by means of political resolution or otherwise. The investigative power of the National Assembly does not extend to the grant of judicial relief or redress.
“We submit that in the event that our application for interlocutory injunction is refused, the first respondent whose illegal actions are being challenged would, through its unfettered power, compel the attendance of the applicants to disclose the source of their publication even without any formal complaint against such publication.
“With profound respect to my Lord, we urge the Honourable Court to hold that the applicants have legal rights to be protected in this suit and the balance of convenience tilts in favour of the applicants.”