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Publisher and three editors charged with criminal defamation, injurious falsehood

(MRA/IFEX) - On 27 November 2008, the government of Nigeria arraigned the publisher of the Abuja-based privately owned "Leadership" daily newspaper, Sam Ndah Isaiah, and three other editorial staff, daily editor Abdulrazak Bello Barkindo, Sunday editor Lara Olugbemi and ex-associate editor Simon Imobo-Swan, at an Abuja magistrate court. They were accused of "conspiracy, joint illegal acts, defamation of character, injurious falsehood and printing, engraving and distributing of matter known to be defamatory contrary to sections 79, 392, 393, 394, and 395 of the Penal Code."

On more than three occasions in November, both the State Security Service (SSS), Nigeria's intelligence agency, and the regular police force have raided the "Leadership" offices, arresting these staffers, subsequently releasing them and ordering them to report to the SSS offices on a regular basis. The travails of the newspaper are the result of a report it published alleging that President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua had fallen ill again, could no longer attend to official duties and that medical doctors had been flown to Nigeria from Saudi Arabia to treat him.

The state of the president's health has been a subject of much speculation in the country since he collapsed during his election campaigns early in 2007 and had to be flown to Germany for treatment.

Following their arrests earlier this month, the journalists were questioned about the source of the story published by the newspaper. Although the Presidency denied the truth of the story, the newspaper claimed that, despite an error in the report, it was largely true.

The "Leadership" personnel's arraignment represents the climax of the Presidency's threat to go to court to seek redress for the publication, along with the incessant raids on the newspaper's premises and harassment of its staff.

Chief Magistrate Sunday Ochimama granted bail for the newspaper's personnel in the sum of 500,000 naira (approx. US$ 4,200) each and a surety who must be a civil servant and not less than Grade Level 10 in the civil service, in addition to showing evidence of ownership of landed property within Abuja. The journalists met the bail conditions and were subsequently released.

The magistrate fixed the trial date for 16 and 18 December.

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