Months before its first publication, The Fourth Estate contacted a prominent bishop within the charismatic fraternity in Ghana to get an audience of the leadership of the Lighthouse Chapel International (LCI.
The news entity also wrote to the church to request information/interviews on the allegations raised by six former bishops and pastors of LCI.
But, on both occasions, the church refused to comment on the matter.
These and other revelations are contained in the defence filed by The Fourth Estate team in response to a defamation suit brought against it by Lighthouse.
The church had claimed among other things in a defamation suit that the publication by The Fourth Estate in April last year was one-sided.
The Fourth Estate, however, indicated that when the top charismatic bishop intervened and Lighthouse refused to speak to the allegations, it wrote again to the church more than a month before the publication. The church failed to respond.
The church has, in three separate suits, claimed that the reportage had dipped the church’s name in the mud.
The suit named the Editor-in-Chief of The Fourth Estate, Manasseh Azure Awuni; the reporter who worked on the story, Edwin Appiah; the Executive Director of the Media Foundation for West Africa, Sulemana Braimah and the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA), as defendants.
In its defence, The Fourth Estate refuted the church’s claim that the stories were one-sided and prejudicial.
According to the defence filed on January 6, 2022, The Fourth Estate “offered [the] plaintiff [LCI] the opportunity of a sought response/reaction including through an equally well known and respected preacher-intermediary, as well as by writing formally to request information but plaintiff declined, neglected, refused or failed to avail itself by any means.”
That, letter dated March 17, 2021, was addressed to the Presiding Bishop of Lighthouse, Dag Heward-Mills.
Even though the church failed to respond, The Fourth Estate quoted significantly from the church’s response to one of the six pastors as well as the church’s position in the issues from correspondence between the church and the pastors.
In its defence, The Fourth Estate said the publication was based on matters of fact, privilege, justified, in the public interest and fair comment.
Six former ministers of the Lighthouse sued the church in April last year for non-payment of their pension contributions, economic exploitation and emotional abuse.
They said they had been drawn into the ministry by their spiritual father, founder and Presiding Bishop of LCI, Dag Heward-Mills. Most of them, who served as student-leaders in the gospel, said they were not given employment letters.
There was no formal employer-employee relationship when they transitioned into full-time service of the Lord after graduation. They said they trusted their spiritual father, Bishop Dag Heward-Mills, and that defined their working relationship with the church. This, they said, the church took advantage of and mistreated them.
They, therefore, resigned and sued LCI, which used to be the epicentre of their spiritual and social lives. They are praying the court to compel the church to pay their pension contributions and damages for the violation of their human rights by the church.
They believe there are more silent victims among the 111 bishops and over 2,300 pastors of Lighthouse, who are currently shepherding more than 6,070 churches in 92 countries across the world.
Apart from enforcing their rights, the six former pastors say the reason they are speaking up is to ensure that those still serving in the church do not suffer what they have been through.
The church, in response, counter-sued its former pastors and now The Fourth Estate for the fallout.
In its statement of claim, the LCI said the relationship between the church and its founder, Bishop Dag Heward-Mills, was inseparable.
Bishop Heward-Mills, the medical doctor who dropped the stethoscope for the cross in 1991, preaches unalloyed loyalty—one the resigned pastors now claim took the better part of their lives in exchange for compensations that did not reflect the church’s own policies.
LCI’s case against The Fourth Estate
The church claimed that The Fourth Estate’s publication meant that the LCI was engaged in a “long term deceptive agenda of inducing its employees and volunteers into untoward reliance on the plaintiff and so succumbing to subservient dependence on the plaintiff.”
The LCI also claimed the publications sought to suggest that the church was “not only intolerant but extremely callous, insensitive, inconsiderate and cold-hearted in its treatment of and abandonment of its volunteers and employees with exacting demands calculated to hound them out of their posts.”
“In the immediate aftermath of the publications there was a complete uproar in the plaintiff’s [Lighthouse] branches throughout Ghana with many of the members completely horrified and threatening to leave the church, which some actually did,” LCI also claimed its defamation suit.
The LCI claimed The Fourth Estate’s stories had profit motives and was launched “within a media space of fierce competition for attention in which the more sensational a story is, the more readership and consequent financial gain.”
The Fourth Estate defence
The Fourth Estate said far from being the money-making machine the LCI claimed, the platform was a non-profit publication. This explains the absence of an opportunity for advertisement or advertorials on the website.
The defence explained that at all times the publications were reliant “on facts contained in arranged interviews, other official documents and a body of correspondence between officers of plaintiff [LCI] including its Human Resource outfit, and plaintiff’s founder and leader on the one part and [the] said former employees of plaintiff and consultants/ advisors on other the part, and formal complaints to the Social Security and National Insurance Trust (SSNIT).”
It also grounded the stories as qualifying for the privilege and public interest, citing reasons including the fact the matters were subject to ongoing litigation in the High Court, and that they were based on the outcome of investigations by The Fourth Estate.
The defence also said the issues were of significant public interest. It said the LCI had an immense public status and asserted a lot of influence and that a critique of non-compliance of the LCI with the Pensions Act in defaulting to pay the contribution of its employee was a matter of legitimate public concern and fair comment.
The Fourth Estate’s lawyers also reasoned that the publications also qualified to be fair comment/ opinion.
It argued that what the church was seeking was “an unconstitutional censorship in the nature of a gagging order against the defendant having failed in its attempts to dictate what in its view ought to be the accepted professional standards of journalism, dictate the content and control the editorial direction of [the] said publication.”
The defence said the LCI’s chief aim was an attempt “in a game of chance to use this suit to unlawfully shackle the defendants and prevent them from exercising their lawful professional duties in what is commonly known in jurisdictions, including the United States of America as SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation).”
The case is yet to be called in court.