Sunday, June 5, 2016

Nigeria and trial by media syndrome

Last Wednesday, precisely on June 1, 2016, I was among the resource persons at a roundtable organised for judicial correspondents of Nigerian media. The event held at Rockview Hotel, Abuja was put together by a non-governmental organisation known as Law, Media and Social Justice Development Initiative. The themes of the roundtable were “Reporting Court Proceedings by the Media: Uses and Abuses” and “Justice Development in FCT Judiciary.”  Among the dignitaries that graced the occasion were Hon. Justice Ishaq U. Bello who is the Chief Judge of the Federal Capital Territory High Court (he came in company of five other justices of the FCT High Court), Mr. Waheed Odusile, who is the National President of Nigeria Union of Journalists, Prof. Paul Idornigie, SAN, Chief J. K Gadzama, SAN and Barrister Charles Odenigbo who was the Chief Host. There were five papers presented. I spoke on the topic “Trial by Media: Understanding Implications through Case Studies”

In my presentation I defined the media as well as did an overview of legal framework for media practice in Nigeria before going to discuss the main issue.  According to Wikipedia, “Trial by media is a phrase popular in the late 20th century and early 21st century to describe the impact of television and newspaper coverage on a person's reputation by creating a widespread perception of guilt or innocence before, or after, a verdict in a court of law.” The problem with this syndrome or phenomenon according to Ugur Nedim, a lawyer,   is that it is a collision between the right to a fair trial on one hand and freedom of speech and public interest (including ‘open justice’) on the other. While the public has a right to know if politicians are involved in less than ethical behaviour, there comes a point where excessive media coverage could impact on a fair trial. Finding this balance often proves elusive.”

To buttress the negative impact of this practice of trial by media, I cited  an opinion article published in 2012 by  Urvashi Singh of Singh Associates, India who said  “Media has now reincarnated itself into a ‘public court’ …and has started interfering into court proceedings so much so that it pronounces its own verdict even before the court does. It completely overlooks the vital gap between an accused and a convict keeping at stake the golden principles of ‘presumption of innocence until proven guilty’ and ‘guilt beyond reasonable doubt’. A school of thought believes that trial by media is a contempt of court. They opined that it is tantamount to scandalising, prejudicing trial, and hindering the administration of justice. This phenomenon is not peculiar to Nigeria, it is a global challenge.

In trying to discuss how this syndrome plays out in Nigeria, I quoted Nigerian Tribune editorial published on March 16, 2016 entitled “Corruption and trial by the media.”  The newspaper, which is the oldest surviving print medium in Nigeria having been established by the late sage, Chief Obafemi Awolowo in 1949,  opined that  “Between the anti-corruption agencies and the media, there appears to be a symbiotic alliance which ensures that, rather than in the law courts where the prosecution and the accused go through the rigour of marshaling evidences for and against conviction, conviction is not only ten-a-dime on the airwaves and on the pages of newspapers, it is offered in a  peremptory, at-the-drop-of-a-hat manner which should bother society.”

The editorial went further to state that “These days, there is a predictable pattern to the media conviction of accused persons: media organisations are given the minutest details of allegations against the accused a few days before their arrest, the accused are subsequently arrested and, almost immediately, likely charges fly about in the media. The circus is in turn enlivened on the day of the arraignment through a hyped feast on the case by a multiplicity of Nigerian media organisations that are thirsty for ‘exclusive’ stories.”

Some of the instances trial by the media or prosecution via ‘court of public opinion’ had been perpetrated are mostly in corruption cases. These include trial of Bank Chief Executives such as Cecila Ibru, Erastus Akingbola, Francis Atuche, in 2009. The Femi Otedola versus Faruk Lawan fuel subsidy probe saga; trial of immediate past National Security Adviser, Sambo Dasuki and beneficiary of largesse under him especially PDP chieftains and military high command including ex-Chief of Defence Staff, Alex Badeh and several military top shots.  There is also the case with the current trial of Senate President, Bukola Saraki at the Code of Conduct Tribunal. It is noteworthy that trial by media also takes place in murder cases as well as any other matters involving high profile individuals especially politically exposed persons.

How is this trial conducted?  There are several ways media practitioners do this. It is done via editorial, news report, features story,  vox populi, opinions of columnists and public affairs analysts. It is also done through the use of social media such as blogging, tweeting, posts on Facebook, parade of suspects on camera and many more. This trial by media exposes perpetrators to libel suits as it is in most cases defamation of character or character assassination of the accused. It is instructive to note that trial of accused persons in the ‘court of public opinion’ is not rooted in law and as Hon. Justice Ishaq Bello pointed out at the roundtable, the conclusions reached by the public most times will be at variance with that of the legally constituted courts whose decisions will be arrived at after considering the weight of evidence provided by the prosecution team.

My recommendations on the way forward include: The need for Nigerian anti-corruption agencies, especially Economic and Financial Crimes Commission to  stop leaking vital evidences and charges to media houses and learn to engage in diligent prosecution of suspects; The need for our media practitioners to use appropriate language of reportage in reporting cases of alleged corruption; Imperative of training and retraining of Nigerian Journalists on how to report on judicial matters;   Legal counsels should stop maligning judges when they grant press interviews after court sessions; and lastly, media regulatory agencies should be alive to their responsibilities by ensuring that appropriate sanctions are meted to any media house indulging in trial by media.

Jide is the Executive Director of OJA Development Consult.