Appeals court dismisses case filed against MediaToday by relative of Nigerian ex-minister

Edward Keninwenimo Etete had filed court proceedings against MaltaToday's parent company MediaToday in 2018, over an article that had been published in 2016

A court judgement in favour of MaltaToday’s parent company, dismissing an unusual case that had been filed against it by a relative of a Nigerian politician and convicted money launderer, has been confirmed by the Court of Appeal, which described the lawsuit as a puerile attempt to take the court for a ride.

Edward Keninwenimo Etete had filed court proceedings before the First Hall of the Civil Court against Maltatoday’s parent company MediaToday Company Ltd in 2018, over an article that had been published in 2016, with the title “Son of controversial Nigerian Minister used Maltese intermediary to set up BVI company.”

The plaintiff claimed that the article had wrongly described him as the son of Dan Etete, Nigeria’s former Minister of Petroleum, who was convicted of money laundering in 2007, arguing that his father was another man named Edward Gunn Etete. He demanded that the media house publish a declaration to this effect, but insisted that his action was not one for libel - which action would have otherwise been time-barred.

MediaToday, through its lawyers, Veronique Dalli and Andrew Saliba, denied Etete’s assertions and pointed out that the article in question had already been taken down. The media house retorted that the case had been filed against the wrong defendant, a year too late and before the wrong court, as libel cases fell within the jurisdiction of the Court of Magistrates and not that of the First Hall.

Were the court to continue to hear the case, it would create a backdoor through which parties wishing to file libel cases after the prescriptive time frame imposed by law, could bypass the fact that the case was time-barred. 

Etete’s lawyer argued that the case had not been filed before the Court of Magistrates as it was not a libel suit seeking damages and that his client was seeking a declaration by the defendant, admitting that the information it had published was incorrect.

In 2019, The First Hall, presided by Mr. Lawrence Mintoff, had upheld MediaToday’s arguments, opting to stop hearing the case and ordering Etete to pay the costs. That court had also pointed out that the plaintiff had not attempted to file a right of reply and that the article had been published over three years prior and the only trace of it was now in “some archive at the National Library” in Valletta, as the online records of its publication had already been deleted.

Even though Etete had only been seeking a declaration and not damages, that declaration could only correctly be obtained through a libel case, the court had ruled. Etete had subsequently filed an appeal, which was decided on Thursday.

The Court of Appeal, presided by Chief Justice Mark Chetcuti, Mr. Justice Christian Falzon Scerri and Madam Justice Josette Demicoli, upheld Mr. Justice Mintoff’s decision, citing past judgments which had established that a lawsuit seeking only a declaration was admissible, as long as it was not only a request for a declaration that was “merely academic” in nature, but one which could, and was, intended to be followed with another, actionable, demand.

The judges observed that Etete had “been careful to clothe his case in a different outfit to that which it really is,” remarking that whilst it was true that the article had incorrectly described him as the son of a former Minister in Nigeria, “his true complaint, no matter what he says, is obviously tied to the allegations contained in that article, which are that the Panama Papers had revealed how a certain Edward Keniwenimo Etete, the son of a former Minister in Nigeria who was accused of corruption and money laundering, had opened a company in the British Virgin Islands through a Maltese intermediary.” 

The article had gone on to make a number of allegations which the judges said, “had doubtless bothered the plaintiff, by linking him to a person whom he declares not to be his father, who was evidently under a cloud [of suspicion] because of the allegations made against him.”

“The appellant wants to try and take everyone for a ride. This is why he asked that the defendant company be also ordered to correct the article….after declaring that this Minister is not his father (although, as declared by the same appellant in his affidavit, this person is his father’s cousin)...”

The judges said MediaToday Company Ltd was correct in arguing that it was not right that the appellant was attempting to obtain a remedy by circumventing the timeframe established by law. 

The ultimate aim of the suit was to clear his name and nothing more, said the court, ruling that the First Hall’s decision was correct; the judges said Etete’s arguments were puerile and that he was trying to unpick matters unnecessarily.

“Whichever way you look at it, the First Court was correct to say that the appellant’s request could only be made in the context of libel proceedings.”

It was obvious, therefore, that concluding that the action requested by the appellant was in fact libel, and once the period of one year laid down by law had already elapsed, the appellant had filed these proceedings because he was unable to do otherwise.”

It was pointless for Etete to cling to the argument that he had not exhibited evidence to counter the time-barring issue because once the one-year prescriptive period had elapsed it was too late.

The judges also had no truck with Etete’s parting shot - an observation that Mr. Justice Mintoff and MediaToday Managing Director Saviour Balzan had once been active in the same political party, insinuating that this had some bearing on the outcome of the case. That observation did no favours to the person making it, said the court. “It is easy to cast insinuations and doubts on a judge who had presided over that case, after that party’s claim is rejected. The appellant himself admits that the subject of his comment was not a valid reason for the recusal of the presiding judge.” 

The court added, “for completeness sake and not because it wanted to examine the judge’s actions” that Etete “had chosen to put forward a claim about which there was not even a speck of evidence in the acts of the proceedings. Above all, from a reading of the judgement appealed, it emerges that the presiding judge had proceeded in accordance with justice and righteousness and nowhere does it emerge that he could have in some way been partial.”