US judge dismisses million dollar libel suit against Sahara Reporters
US-based Nigerian lawyer Ephraim Ugwuonye sued for libel over allegations of fraud made by Sahara Reporters. After three years of pre-trial wrangling, Judge Peter J. Messitte dismissed the claim.
Nigerian corruption and human rights website, Sahara Reporters has won summary judgment in a $100 million libel and invasion of privacy case brought against it by US lawyer Ephraim Ugwuonye.
In 2009, the Nigerian-born lawyer had filed proceedings against the Sahara Reporters editor, Sowore Omoyele, for defamation and breach of privacy. Ugwuonye claimed that reports that he had improperly retained $1.5 million in IRS tax funds during his representation of the Nigerian embassy were false. Sahara Reporters had alleged that Ugwuonye had claimed the funds as outstanding legal fees owed to him by the Nigerian Government.
Ugwuonye also claimed invasion of privacy for Sahara Reporters mention of his 90 day suspension for misconduct in 2009.
In a fifteen-page judgment, Judge Peter J. Messitte held that Ugwuonye was a public figure. This meant he had to prove that Sahara Reporters' statements were made with ‘actual malice’. Reviewing the evidence, Judge Messite found that the reports were properly researched and concluded that “no trier of fact could reasonably conclude by clear and convincing evidence that any of the statements in issue in this case were made with actual malice”.
Sahara Reporters is an online news agency that provides investigative reporting on corruption and human rights abuses throughout Nigeria. Sometimes reffered to as the African Wikileaks, it is regularly threatened with libel suits brought with the sole aim of silencing it. In recent years it has won three such cases and seen off threats of others, all with the help of pro bono lawyers found through MLDI's networks. In 2008, it fended off a $25 million defamation lawsuit brought in reponse to an article alleging that Nigeria’s Attorney General, Michael Aondoakaa, had sought bribes from pharmaceutical corporate giant, Pfizer. The case was successfully defended by Julie Ford. Earlier in 2012, Sahara Reporters defeated a $30 million libel claim brought by lawyer and Pentecostal pastor, Eric Abakporo. This case was defended by Rob Balin. Abakporo has since been charged with fraud by the FBI.
MLDI and Sahara Reporters are grateful to Bruce Brown of Baker Hostetler for defending this matter. Bruce Brown has since taken up the position of Executive Director at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.