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Inside The Deal Zinox Group Struck With PREMIUM TIMES Over N170.3m FIRS Contract Fraud Reportage

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By Bassey Udo

On Monday, January 30, 2023, I obtained the certified true copy (CTC) of the “settlement” deal that Zinox Group struck with PREMIUM TIMES over the reportage on the N170.3 million contract fraud allegations by Benjamin Joseph, the Managing Director of an Ibadan-based ICT firm, Citadel Oracle Concept Limited, against the Chairman of Zinox Group, Leo Stan Ekeh, his wife, Chioma, and 13 others.

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The kernel of the six-page deal is:

  1. That Zinox Technologies Limited agreed to withdraw all its claims against PREMIUM TIMES, its Publisher, and Editor-In-Chief as settlement for Suit No. FCT/HC/CV/1680/2017.
  2. That PREMIUM TIMES, its Publisher and Editor-In-Chief also agreed to withdraw all counterclaims against Zinox Technologies Limited and Punch Nigeria Limited in the same suit.
  3. That PREMIUM TIMES, its Publisher, and Editor-In-Chief agreed to cease and desist from further publication of the facts of the allegation of fraud leveled against Zinox Technologies Limited, its affiliates and top officials, except the reporting about the deal.
  4. That in spite of the deal, PREMIUM TIMES, its Publisher and Editor-In-Chief was not under any obligation to remove or delete from their website the “offensive” publications.
  5. That Zinox Technologies Limited agreed with PREMIUM TIMES, its Publisher, and Editor-In-Chief to consider all issues between them settled and resolved and would not re-litigate any issue relating to the subject matter of the suit in any court or Tribunal whatsoever.
  6. That the deal between Zinox and PREMIUM TIMES clears the way for a hearing in the substantive suit against the latter by the former will proceed against the 4th defendant and reporter of the story.

Background

In 2017, Zinox Technologies Limited filed a suit against PREMIUM TIMES claiming N2billion over alleged libel, defamation of character, and damages to its reputation and those of its top officials as a result of the publication of stories about an N170.3 million Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS) contract fraud they allegedly committed.

The company demanded N10 million as a cost of litigation; an order of the court for perpetual injunction restraining further publication by PREMIUM TIMES; an apology published in select national dailies, and a directive for the removal of the publications from PREMIUM TIMES’ website.

On the basis of the cache of documentary evidence in support of its reportage of the case, PREMIUM TIMES filed a counterapplication against Zinox Technologies Limited claiming N10 billion damages for publications in the Punch Newspapers and other online media sponsored by the suspects disparaging its integrity.

At the end, despite attempts to gag PREMIUM TIMES through an interlocutory injunction restraining it from further publishing the stories, Zinox Technology Limited lost, as the court on March 1, 2019, ruled that the media cannot be restrained from performing its constitutional duty of informing the public.

Since they failed to stop PREMIUM TIMES, the reportage of the substantive case and the ancillary cases by the Police, EFCC and other anti-corruption agencies continued in different courts in Lagos and Abuja as well as the Ministry of Justice, Presidency, police, and places.

The reportage on the case by PREMIUM TIMES began on September 15, 2016 when Mr Ekeh and other top officials of Zinox Group and its affiliates were quizzed by the EFCC over the alleged crime.

Since then, the newspaper followed up with the twists and turns in the case in different courts in Lagos and Abuja and published more than 40 stories on its website.

The decision by the management of PREMIUM TIMES to abandon the reportage and agree to a settlement deal with the suspects is, perhaps, another twist that close followers of the case find hard to fathom.

It is the first time in the short history of the acclaimed ethical newspaper, which prides itself as the defender of the oppressed against oppressors, to abandon the reportage when the claims of libel and defamation of character by its accusers are yet to be proven.

It’s even more intriguing that the reporter of the story is being thrown under the bus as a reward for his diligence, commitment and passion in doing the right thing in the face of pressures from the suspects and their agents who have now been emboldened to threaten further legal actions.

Since PREMIUM TIMES has refused to publish the details of the deal for the benefit of the public, it suggests that they are not so proud of what they have done. I have therefore taken the liberty to do so, to bring it to the court of public opinion.

The deal

    

The deal

The deal was first mentioned in court on Wednesday, June 16, 2021, by counsel to Zinox Technologies Limited, Patrick Ikwueto, Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN).

Months after Zinox Technology failed in court to gag PREMIUM TIMES and stop the newspaper from continuing its reportage of the case, and having seen how difficult it was for them to prove their innocence in the trial in the substantive case, Mr Ikwueto told the court about the decision by his clients to consider an application for an out-of-court settlement on the matter.

Before adjourning sitting that day, the presided judge of the High Court of the Federal Capital Territory, Justice Sylvanus Chinedu Oriji, advised him to ensure that he met with all parties concerned about the idea and work together to arrive at an amicable settlement to be presented for adoption during the resumed sitting of the court on September 21, 2021.

Not opposed to settlement, I did not ask questions. I expected that the meeting of all the parties (which I thought I was an intrinsic part by virtue of being the reporter of the centre of the case), I or my lawyer would be involved whenever it would be convened to discuss the terms. No meeting was called.

But I recall that on June 2, 2021, Mr Ikwueto, whom I had known in the course of reporting other stories and respected, had summoned me to his office in Wuse Zone 2, Abuja. He sounded frantic, although he refused to divulge the reason for the urgency of his invitation, even when I insisted to know. Out of respect, I went there with my wife and daughter. On arrival in his office, he confessed being uncomfortable that I came with my family. But reluctantly, he received us.

Then he called me aside for us to discuss. He asked me about how I could help make PREMIUM TIMES to stop publishing the stories about the alleged fraud by his clients. I was shocked. I told him that the lawyer who has been representing PREMIUM TIMES in the case was the best person for him to discuss such matters with and wondered why he thought I was the right person to approach.

He said he was not familiar with the lawyer. I told him Zinox Technologies could not be asking for the reportage of the stories to stopped when they have published an advertorial in Punch and a series of stories in several online platform alleging that I was induced to be writing the stories.

I told him if any discussion about stopping the stories is to be considered, the starting point should be for Zinox to demonstrate good faith by retracting the allegation of inducement and corruption leveled against me. Without retracting the accusations, I told him it would amount to holding the noose around my neck for my character and reputation to be impugned, as the public would see it as true that my reports on the case were indeed induced.

When he insisted that I should help, I told him I was not in a position to do that, as there were my superiors – my Editor-In-Chief and Publisher he could talk to. He said he would not be comfortable talking to them. I left his office.

On my return to the office, I reported what transpired to the Editor-In-Chief, Musikilu Mojeed. I also sent a lengthy message on WhatsApp to the Publisher, Dapo Olorunyomi, who was outside the country at the time. I gave a warning about the implication of any attempt to go into any negotiations with Zinox, particularly on it would impinge on the credibility of PREMIUM TIMES as a reputable ethical media champion.

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I told him that if PREMIUM TIMES went into any negotiation to abandon its responsibility to continue to expose the shenanigans of Zinox against the petitioner, the public would henceforth see it an organization that cannot be trusted; who offered its back to help a distressed person cross a river only to push the person off its back at the middle of the river and allow him to drown or float at the mercy of the sharks.  The Publisher later responded and told me he was not disposed at that moment to attend to officials matters. He asked me to refer every action on the case to the Editor-In-Chief, as he did not hope to return to the country soon.

At the resumed sitting of the court on September 21, 2021, a copy of the terms of settlement bearing the seal and signature of Mr Ikwueto, and the particulars of PREMIUM TIMES’ legal adviser, Jiti Ogunye, was presented to Mmuoka Jude, the lawyer who has been representing PREMIUM TIMES in court with me on the matter, for signature. His particulars were also on the document.

But Mr Jude refused to sign the document. It was then it occurred to me what my invitation by Mr Ikwueto to his office on June 2 was all about. I felt betrayed. But I did not know by whom.

At the end of the court sitting, I confronted Mr Jude on why he should be part of the conspiracy to enter into a settlement deal over a case he handled, which affected my interest, and would choose not to inform me. I told him of the invitation earlier by Mr Ikwueto to his office and what transpired. He vehemently denied any knowledge about any meeting that preceded the settlement terms presented to him to sign. He said it was wrong for Mr Ikwueto, a senior lawyer, to have approached me for any settlement behind his back.

Also, I recall that on three or four occasions when I had similar encounters on telephone with the Chairman of Zinox Group, Leo Stan Ekeh. On each of those occasions, he had made several offers to me to accept to discontinue writing the stories.

On each occasion, I did not only reject such offers, I made it clear to him that there was no malice against either him or his company in reporting the stories; that the ethics of the practice of my profession, which PREMIUM TIMES subscribe to, only allowed me to always seek the side of all parties in following the facts of stories we write. I have always assured him that he said he was innocent, the only obligation I owed him was to balance the story with his side of the facts.

During one of those calls, Mr Ekeh asked me to link him up with the Editor-In-Chief and Publisher of PREMIUM TIMES for him to pay them a visit and familiarize with them since I refuse to be of help. He says he sees himself as a foremost supporter of media houses in Nigeria and would not want to be seen as fighting with any of them. I reluctantly obliged him the telephone numbers of the two persons.

At the end of the encounter with Mr Ekeh, I reported, first to the Editor-In-Chief, and later to the Publisher. The latter asked me to ignore Mr Ekeh and his proposal and continue my reporting of the case. He said our primary responsibility was for the public.

Another time when Mr Ekeh called and insisted on coming to visit PREMIUM TIMES, I reported again to the Publisher, who asked me never to bring up the issue again with him.

He told me that apart from telling the Publisher of Vanguard newspapers, Sam Amuka, that he was innocent of the allegations, and that PREMIUM TIMES was blackmailing him, he said Ekeh said was ready to go to any length to defend his integrity over the matter and would not do anything to compromise the legal process.

He said if Ekeh and Zinox were interested in a genuine settlement over the matter, they should be more concerned with settling with the person who felt aggrieved, and not PREMIUM TIMES, which was only doing its job in factually reporting the case.

Since that encounter with the Publisher, I never heard of any other thing again about moves toward settlement until September 21, 2021, when Mr Jude and I arrived the court for the day’s sitting.

Encounter with Jiti Ogunye

At the end of the day’s sitting on September 21, 2021, after Mr Jude refused to sign, and denied any knowledge about the draft terms of settlement, I wrote and dispatched by courier a strong worded letter to Jiti Ogunye, PREMIUM TIMES’ legal adviser, and copied the Publisher, Editor-In-Chief and Mr Jude.

In the letter, copies of which I also sent through both WhatsApp and emails, I expressed my misgivings about the clandestine manner the terms of settlement were arrived at, which suggested that all issues were deemed settled and resolved, irrespective of my objections.

I pointed out that although I left PREMIUM TIMES since January 1, 2021, to pursue other interests, I still deserved to have been taken into confidence on how the terms of settlement was arrived at.

My concern was that since the central issues about the case were about claims of malicious and libelous publications through inducement, which directly called to question my personal and professional integrity, it was absolutely crucial that a retraction and an apology be made part of the terms of settlement, to clear my name. Without such actions, I gave them notice that I felt betrayed and would not be part of any settlement and would have no option than to explore other legal means to seek redress and restitution.

When I did not receive any acknowledgment of the receipt of the letter to Mr Ogunye, days after I sent it, I called him on telephone on September 27, 2021, to express my concerns.

He took personal offence about my concerns. He berated, insulted and called me all sorts of unprintable names. He said as a nominal party in the matter (being an employee), he could not have taken instructions from me on what the terms of settlement would be, since I would not have suffered any liability if the case were to have ended against PREMIUM TIMES. His insinuation was that, in a manner of slave, my right to demand protection for my name did not matter, against the interest of the master.

Mr Ogunye accused Mr Jude of mischief, saying he “selectively shared” with me the terms of settlement given to him to sign having known my negative disposition towards the move for settlement.

He said regardless of how I felt, he and PREMIUM TIMES were ready to proceed with the settlement without delay, derisively advising that if I was not satisfied with the decision, I could go ahead to brief my lawyers and be ready to carry on as a lone ranger.

Later, I became aware that on the same day I wrote to Mr Ogunye, Mr Jude had also written to him to frown seriously at the impropriety of him undertaking any negotiation for settlement behind his back in a case he knew he was handling.

In the letter Mr Jude pointed out to Mr Ogunye that his condescending and meddlesome conduct of embarking on negotiations for a settlement in a case he knew another lawyer was involved without his consent only for the resolutions of the negotiations to be sent to the lawyer for “consideration and execution” ran afoul of Rule 27 of the Rules of Professional Conduct for lawyers, and capable of attracting stiff sanctions by the Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Committee of the Nigerian Bar Association.

Following his criticism of the clandestine manner Mr Ogunye conducted the settlement deal, he orchestrated the summary termination of Mr Jude’s legal brief with PREMIUM TIMES in the case, for another pliable lawyer to be hired, apparently to clear the way for him to seal the deal without any further resistance.

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Wrong premise

In his response to my mail to him on September 21, 2021, Mr Ogunye claimed the premise for the settlement deal was that PREMIUM TIMES had anticipated that the outcome of the prosecution of the suspects in the alleged fraud by the EFCC would have provided the plank for it to lean on as defence to continue its reportage of the case. He said since the ruling by Justice Danlami Senchi came out in favour of Zinox, PREMIUM TIMES had no other option open to rely on.

However, this claim flies in the face of any sane argument. It betrays the fact that Mr Ogunye, despite strutting about as the legal adviser to PREMIUM TIMES, did not bother enough to follow the case deep enough to understand how the so-called ruling in the EFCC case came about. At best, he focused on other self-serving interests than take time to read the buildup to the final judgment.

Maybe these details will be of benefit to him and others. Vice President Yemi Osinbajo had directed the EFCC to wade into the matter. The anti-graft agency investigated the allegations raised against the top officials of Zinox and found eight persons complicit of the crime. Its findings corroborated the earlier Police report on the matter.

The allegation in the petition to the police by Mr Joseph was that the suspects used a forged document of his company dated December 18, 2012, to commit the crime. The key suspects accepted this fact in their handwritten deposition to the police and the forensic analysis of documents tendered in court in the substantive case. But the EFCC refused to tender any of the forensic details of these forged documents.

Rather, in deciding to arraign the suspects in court, the legal department of the EFCC chose to charge only two of the eight suspects on a phantom charge that the crime was committed using a forged document dated December 14, 2012.

Despite protests by lawyers to the petitioner seeking to compel the EFCC prosecutor to amend the charge, he refused, thereby providing a window for the court to exploit, to throw out the case and discharge the suspects on the basis of non-diligent prosecution and conflicting evidence.

Expectedly, in his ruling, Justice Danlami Senchi did not waste time in throwing out the case and acquitting the suspects for want of evidence. Curiously, Justice Senchi went further to pronounce an award of N20 million fine on the petitioner who was not even a party to the case and was denied the chance to give evidence that could have punctured the EFCC’s case. That’s the ruling Mr Ogunye celebrated in favour of Zinox, despite that an appeal has since gone to the Appeal Court, with ruling fixed for March this year.

Again, uninformed references have been made to the decision late last year by the Attorney General of the Federation (AGF), Abubakar Malami, to withdraw the Fiat earlier granted to Femi Falana, Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), to prosecute the suspects, which was misinterpreted to mean a further vindication of the decision by PREMIUM TIMES on the settlement deal.

Far from the truth! Lawyers properly informed on the matter have said that the AGF’s withdrawal of the Fiat he granted to Mr Falana to prosecute the suspects has not in any way invalidated the subsisting charge already preferred against the suspects.

At best, they said the AGF was only exercising his right, like every person who has a case, who can change his mind at any time on his choice of the lawyer to represent him in court. That cannot be mischievously misconstrued to be the same as the AGF’s right to exercise his privilege conferred on him under Section 174(1) of the Constitution of Nigeria 1999 (as amended), to intervene in any case and take over at any point if in his fair judgment he sensed any potential threat to the equitable dispensation of justice.

The lawyers argue that the spirit and intendment of the Constitution did not envisage a situation where the AGF would be intervening in a case to derail the legal prosecution of suspects in a crime in which the law enforcement agencies, like the police and other anti-crime and corruption agencies have all investigated and came to a consensus that they were liable for prosecution.

On May 10, 2022, the AGF had approved a request Mr Falana made to him since November 2018 seeking permission to prosecute the suspects on behalf of the Federal Government.

On September 9, 2022, Mr Falana, SAN, filed a 17-count charge at the High Court of the Federal Capital Territory, Maitama, in suit No FCT/HC/CR/469/2022 against the Chairman of Zinox Group, Leo Stan Ekeh, his wife, Chioma, and 11 other suspects.  On October 6, 2022, the suspects filed their defence through an application No M/11480/2022.

But on October 28, 2022, prior to their arraignment in court, the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP), M. B. Abubakar, wrote to Mr Falana to inform him of the decision of the AGF to withdraw the May 10, 2022, authorization to him and requested him to withdraw Charge No. FCT/HC/CR/469/2022 filed against the suspects “in the interest of justice.” Till date, the AGF has neither given any reason for the withdrawal of the Fiat granted to Mr Falana, nor has he made any categorical statement about the pendency of the charge against the suspects.

The implication is that if the AGF had previously, on two occasions, ordered the stoppage of the police prosecution of the petitioner after reviewing the case file, he or anyone after him, can reinstate the case and give the powers to any other lawyer to prosecute the suspects.

The case was about claims for libel and defamation of character by suspects who alleged that their reputation and that of their companies were damaged in the eyes of right-thinking members of the general public as a result of publications considered false or malicious.

For any discussion about an out of court settlement to be considered fair, the ingredients of falsehood and malicious intent must first be proven in court beyond reasonable doubt, with facts and evidence acceptable to all the parties.

If this is not the case, as nothing has happened so far to prove to the contrary, that the reportage of the case was false and malicious, what then could have influenced the decision by PREMIUM TIMES to jump at a questionable settlement deal at the expense of both its integrity and that of its reporter, as the trial in the case is still ongoing?

Without prejudice to the right of PREMIUM TIMES to enter into any deal with any party they fancy, the point must be made that any deal relating to settlement out of court over the issues that constituted the foundation for the case must be thrashed out on the basis of equity, fairness, natural justice and good conscience for all parties.

Without the full consent, knowledge and involvement of all the parties, the entire deal would be subject to monumental ridicule, as it would amount to a fraudulent conspiracy to cover another fraudulent act.

If any aspect of the reportage has been found to be false, which would have rightly formed the basis for the decision to discontinue reporting the story, then PREMIUM TIMES should do the needful – publish a retraction and an apology, delete the offending publication from its website and consider legal action against the reporter for non-diligent conduct.

To agree to stop reporting the story and not be bold enough to pull down the stories from its website and publish an apology to the public suggests there must have been other undeclared influences on its action calculated to impugn the character and integrity of its reporter with a punitive reward for a good conduct.

Source: https://mediatracnet.com/inside-the-deal-zinox-group-struck-with-premium-times-over-n170-3m-firs-contract-fraud-reportage/

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