The police on Friday afternoon released two Premium Times’ journalist, Dapo Olorunyomi and Evelyn Okakwu, on bail after over four hours at the FCT Police command.
The Police Commissioner for the Federal Capital Territory, Mohammed Mustafa, said Friday in Abuja that a prudent way for the management of PREMIUM TIMES and the Nigerian Army authorities to settle the dispute amongst them would be for them to make peace out of court.
Mr. Mustafa’s suggestion came when the two PREMIUM TIMES’ journalists that were arrested on Thursday afternoon returned to the police FCT Command Headquarters on Friday morning.
About seven police officers, dressed in mufti, and armed with search and arrest affidavit arrived at the paper’s head office in Abuja around 5:00 p.m., taking away Dapo Olorunyomi, publisher of the newspaper, and Evelyn Okakwu, its judiciary correspondent.
The officers said they were acting on a criminal defamation complaint filed by Usuagwu Ugochukwu, a lawyer who said he was representing Nigeria’s Army chief, Tukur Buratai.
Mr. Ugochukwu claimed in his complaints that by its alleged defamation of Mr. Buratai, the paper’s reporting was “unpatriotic” and amounted to supporting and furthering Boko Haram’s terror campaign in the Nigerian north-eastern zone.
He offered no evidence for this claim.
Mr. Ugochukwu’s law office claims to specialise in anti-corruption and the promotion of human rights; he also doubles as off-service public relations consultant for Mr. Buratai.
The two PREMIUM TIMES journalists were taken to the FCT Police Command Headquarters in Garki II where officers took their written statements before granting them an administrative bail with conditions that they report back on Friday morning for further interviews.
The journalists arrived at the police department at 8:00 a.m. and met with Mr. Mustafa a few hours later.
The controversy started brewing on December 22, 2016, when the Nigerian Army wrote to PREMIUM TIMES about alleged “unwarranted serial provocative, unauthorised, libellous and defamatory publications”.
The letter, signed by I.M. Alkali, a major-general on behalf of Mr. Buratai, also incorrectly stated that the paper published reports without reference to the Army and added that the stories exposed a “deep hatred for the leadership of the Nigerian Army”.
The letter made specific references to a story about Mr. Buratai’s asset declaration form with the Code of Conduct Bureau, the controversial death of a kidnapped pastor in Port Harcourt and others that exposed the Army’s lapses in the counter-insurgency war against Boko Haram. which were published between October and December 2016. The army described the stories as “false, unsubstantiated, and unprofessional,” but provided no counter-evidence to support its assertions.
The letter demanded PREMIUM TIMES retract the reports and apologise to the army and Mr. Buratai.
On January 9, 2017, the paper, through its lawyers, delivered a detailed response to the Army, standing by its stories and unequivocally rejecting the demand for retraction and apology.
PREMIUM TIMES, instead, asked the army to write a letter within seven days of receiving its reply, withdrawing the allegations and threats against it and its staff, or risk being sued.
The two parties have threatened sweeping lawsuits against each other before the police suddenly moved in on Thursday on the orders of Mr. Buratai and his lawyers.