THE Bayelsa State government on Tuesday, September 6, threatened to take a libel action against some online publications for defamation of character unless they retract their report alleging that Ritchie Etonye, Government House chief accountant, had allegedly absconded with $4.6 million belonging to Governor Henry Seriake Dickson.
Preye Agedah, solicitor-general of Bayelsa State, in a letter to the online publishers, dated September 6 2016, obtained by journalists in Yenagoa, Bayelsa State, warned that “any failure, neglect or refusal to comply with this demand will leave us with no option than to take out criminal and civil process to seek appropriate redress.”
According to the letter, contrary to the allegation, the government of Bayelsa State never lost the sum of $4.6 million or any such sum as alleged and no “such money is missing from the coffers of the state.” As such, the letter said there was, therefore, no reason for any report to the Police and none was made either by the governor or the government of Bayelsa State for the alleged sum of $4.6 million or any other sum.
Further, at the time of the publication which alleged that Etonye had absconded, the accountant was Dickson in Ondo State and subsequently in Port Harcourt where the governor had gone on a condolence visit to Etonye’s father whose son Tamarakuro Etonye (Ritchie’s elder brother) had passed away a few days earlier.
The letter averred that the “police search of Etonye’s private residence in Yenagoa was orchestrated by mischief makers on a false tip that arms were stockpiled therein.” Besides, it said that the purpose of the false tip was to implicate not only Etonye but also the governor who was the ultimate target of the false and malicious information to the Police. “It will interest you to note that the Police have since discovered that they were dispatched on a wild goose chase by the instigators of that search wherein valuable time and effort required to fight crime was dissipated on a mere hoax,” the Agedah’s letter further stated.
Contrary to the publications, the solicitor general said that contrary, the governor did not order the search of Etonye’s residence. He argued: “Mr. Ritchie Etonye is a civil servant whose current posting is as Chief Accountant, Government House carrying out his legitimate duties with diligence and has never been faulted under any guise by the Accountant General of the State to whom he reports directly or any other Government official. We are sure that you are aware that Mr. Etonye who (according to your report) had absconded, is even now in his office in Yenagoa carrying out his official duties.”
According to Agedah, the “publication was clearly made without any investigation whatsoever. As a respected online publication, we believe that even a superficial investigation could have revealed the falsity of the publication. Unfortunately, contrary to all established tenets of the practice of journalism, you proceeded to make a publication that is obviously defamatory of the Government and Government officials. While we believe that free speech is essential in a Constitutional democracy, the exercise of that right ought to be accompanied with the utmost sense of responsibility and due conformity with extant laws.
“Besides the issue of defamation (which has both criminal and civil implications) your publication also constitutes an incitement against public order. As you are well aware, the Nigerian economy is experiencing one of its worst downturns in recent times and to publish that a princely sum of $4.6 million had been stolen from the common patrimony of the people of Bayelsa State, is (to put it mildly) misinformation with capacity to incite public unrest. Any form of responsible and decorous journalism ought to know this. Unfortunately, your publication never adverted to this as you appeared to be in a hurry to put out a false, fabricated and malicious publication in the public domain.
“We hold it in your favour that while the bandwagon effect of the false and malicious misdirection of the Police may have led to your publication, the responsibility to ascertain the veracity of your publication still rests with you. As you already know, officials of the Government of Bayelsa State are available at all times to respond to your inquiries. Unfortunately, you never thought it necessary to utilise this rudimentary practice before making your publication. This is more so when the said publication has capacity to do incalculable damage and has indeed done unquantifiable damage to the government of Bayelsa State and its officials who are endued with public trust; a public trust that they cherish and exercise with the highest sense of responsibility.”
The government, therefore, demanded a retraction of the defamatory publication and “tender an apology to the government of Bayelsa State and its officials who have been defamed by your publication.” Failure to do so, he said, “will leave us with no option than to take out criminal and civil process to seek appropriate redress.”
— Sep 6, 2016 @ 18:30 GMT