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By Hamid Hendrix
The ICPC should have learnt lessons on the ills of trial-by-media by now, but the contrary is evident. It all began when it put out a press release in November last year announcing that it had uncovered a N2.5 billion fraudulent payment by the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) to Pinnacle Communications Limited under the Digital Switch Over (DSO) from analogue television broadcasts in Nigeria. Such a sensational statement on a major national media project immediately went viral but it almost instantly also turned out to be so infected with viruses of unpardonable errors and utter falsehood that the image of the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission (ICPC) as an anti-corruption investigative body got comprehensively corrupted.
The records are there so we will not delve into the distasteful details of that episode. Suffice it to recall that till date the ICPC has not found the decorum or rectitude to own up to its inadequacies by means of a humble retraction in the public interest. Instead it has stuck to its stigma of an unstoppable loose cannon, firing from all the wrong cylinders, but still firing on! Amazingly, the ICPC persisted to the extent of framing charges and arraigning its “culprits” before an Abuja court, all the while revving up the media hype on the N2.5 billion fraudulent payment by NBC to Pinnacle Communications Limited for DSO.
One would have expected the ICPC to end the trial-by-media after the court opened hearings on the matter and to thereafter base its press releases on an accurate reflection of proceedings or to let the free press report the proceedings to the end. But, ICPC has turned its website to a parallel court where it picks and chooses incomplete testimonies and disjointed extracts of documents to propagate in its now unscrupulous determination to misrepresent proceedings and mislead the public about its prosecution of the case of its self-declared N2.5 billion fraudulent payment by NBC. This is in sharp contrast to the hapless surrender of the arraigned “culprits” to the free press reportage of proceedings in the same court of public opinion to which the ICPC has now clearly shifted its focus in an extra-judicial bid to give them a bad name long before the temple of justice determines their fate.
It was perplexing to observe the tone and content of ICPC reportage of proceedings in the matter in comparison to most newspaper and on-line reports following the first two days of hearings after the defendants pleaded not guilty to the charges. You can still find the two ICPC press releases under reference on its website titled Kawu’s payment of 2.5bn DSO fund to Private Company Fraudulent– ex director and N2.5bn DSO fund was shared to Family, Friends, Politicians-ICPC Witness respectively just as you can browse reports on the same proceedings, quoting the same witnesses, by the free press under headlines such as Modibbo Kawu’s Payment of N2.5b to Pinnacle didn’t violate DSO white paper-ICPC Investigator (ThisDay), DIGITAL SWITCH OVER: ICPC INVESTIGATOR ADMITS ERROR, SAYS PAYMENT OF N2.5BN TO PINNACLE DIDN’T VIOLATE FG WHITE PAPER (ALTERNATIVE AFRICA, LONDON, ONLINE), Alleged N2.5 bn Scam: Payment didn’t violate FG White Paper-ICPC ( Nigerian Pilot) as well as FG approved N2.5bn for DSO project-witness tells court (Leadership), Information Minister approved payment of N2.5bn to Pinnacle for Digital Switch Over-witness (Vanguard), National DSO Launched with Pinnacle facilities, equipment-Witness (Newsdiaryonline) and NBC trial : No petition over N2.5bn DSO payment-ICPC investigator (Daily Trust).
Haba ICPC ! From these headlines, you don’t need an ICPC investigator to know that there is a world of difference in fact and projection between what the ICPC dished out on its website and what actually transpired in court during the same proceedings involving the same witnesses. Obviously, the ICPC has deliberately propagated incomplete versions of the proceedings to mislead the public into latching onto its pre-meditated agenda of incriminating the “culprits” not by due process, but by the hook-and-crook orchestration of a media “trial”. Why a supposedly independent federal government anti-corruption agency should be so brazen in embarking on a campaign of calumny by abusing its mandate against some individuals is itself a N2.5 billion question that will certainly be answered sooner or later.
Since the hearings are still at an early stage and the leopards in ICPC are unlikely to change their spotted suits, it will be interesting to see how far the trial-by-media can go in courting public opinion by deceptive manipulation of court proceedings and whether, at the end of it all, the temple of justice will prevail over the theatre of the absurd. Meanwhile those of us who can only wait and wonder are obliged to consider the counsel of Voltaire, the French writer, historian and philosopher, who declared “ those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities,” very apt in the circumstances!
*Hendrix, a public affairs analyst, wrote in from Kaduna