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Media accreditation for Kanu’s trial, wrong

Media accreditation for Kanu’s trial, wrong August 5, 2021 | EASTERN PILOT NIGERIAN officials displayed their characteristic disdain for the...

Media accreditation for Kanu’s trial, wrong

August 5, 2021 | EASTERN PILOT

NIGERIAN officials displayed their characteristic disdain for the media by accrediting only 10 media houses to cover the trial of the leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra, Nnamdi Kanu. Kanu is facing charges bordering on terrorism, treasonable felony, illegal possession of arms, among others, before Binta Nyako of the Federal High Court, Abuja. But he deserves a fair trial, including the right to a public trial.

Hiding behind a terse statement entitled, ‘Media accreditation for Nnamdi Kanu’s trial’, issued by Catherine Christopher, Chief Information Officer, Federal High Court of Nigeria, the statement listed 10 media organisations and 10 specific journalists that were accredited to cover the trial. It is claimed the court was working with the State Security Service.

The media houses accredited included the Daily Independent, Premium Times, The Nation, the News Agency of Nigeria, the Nigerian Television Authority, Channels Television, and Television Continental. There is no democracy where such a restriction has been placed on the media in the performance of their statutory functions of informing, educating, and enlightening the citizens.

This threat to liberty was influenced by the government itself, although it never owned up to such inanity. But, it had all over it the full imprimatur of a regime that has not hidden its characteristic bellicosity and hostility towards a free press and the media profession. This, unfortunately, is embarrassing. The judiciary, seen as the last hope of the common man, should not be seen to be in cahoots with elements desperate to shrink the media space. A free press, not hobbled by any institutional restriction, is a reliable barometer of measuring the functioning of a democracy. Aside from that, nothing weakens and threatens a democracy like a compromised judiciary ever willing to lend itself to the anti-democratic predilections and antics of a reckless executive that disdains the media.

Before now, the Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.) regime had toyed with the ill-conceived and widely condemned idea of outright control and regulation of the media space in Nigeria through two controversial amendment bills that were rightly suspended at the National Assembly. The dust raised by the obnoxious proposed legislation had hardly died before this fresh incident.

Unfettered media access to court proceedings should be guaranteed. The principle of ‘open courts’ means that anyone is allowed to watch most cases, and the media can generally report on what takes place – even if you do not want them to. But to think that the judiciary itself became a willing tool to enforce the denial of the constitutional right of the media to hold the government accountable on behalf of the citizens through unrestricted coverage and reportage of an open court proceeding is depressing and distasteful. That is exactly what the so-called media accreditation amounted to.

The famous English lawyer and judge, Alfred Thompson Denning, popularly known as Lord Denning, poignantly argued in his seminal work, Road to Justice, that the media should be given free rein in the coverage of court proceedings. “In every court in England,” he posited, “you will, l believe, find a newspaper reporter…He notes all that goes on and makes a fair and accurate report of it…he is, I verily believe, the watchdog of justice…The judge would be careful to see that the trial is fairly and properly conducted if he realises that any unfairness or impropriety on his part will be noted by those in court and may be more conscious to give a correct decision if he knows that his reasons must justify themselves at the Bar of public opinion.”

This is true of every democracy, sadly this is not the case in Buhari’s Nigeria. Perhaps, such a restriction may be contemplated when the trial is of somebody accused of espionage. Or, when there is an established case of contempt of court determined by a presiding judge. None of these cases applies here. This should worry every lover of an open government. The role of the media in ensuring governmental accountability, the judiciary not excluded, is fully guaranteed in Section 22 of the 1999 Constitution. The section states: “The press, radio, television and other agencies of the mass media shall at all times be free to uphold the fundamental objectives contained in this chapter and uphold the responsibility and accountability of the government to the people.”

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Justice delivery starts with the incorrigibility of the judiciary, which should be more interested in opening the democratic space for multi-stakeholder interface towards creating an open society. It is trite, therefore, that an open trial, which should not be arbitrarily restricted to a few, perhaps, ‘friendly’ media outlets, is an essential element of an open society that every democracy aspires to. Indeed, it is absurd for a court to be restricting freedoms in a democracy as the FHC Abuja did in this matter.

There is no reason why the Nigerian media should not rise in unison and boycott any court where such a directive is taken. No government agency or arm of government is permitted by law to decide, whimsically, which media outlet to “accredit” to cover a court proceeding.

It is a violation of the rule of law as well as the right to know of the citizens. As global rights advocacy group, Amnesty International, rightly said, “selecting few journalists to cover the trial is a restriction on access to information and an attempt to deny people the right to know. It also violates all fair hearing guarantees.”

During the murder trial of the disabled South African Olympic hero, Oscar Pistorius, the judge, Thokozile Maspia, allowed live coverage of court proceedings for the first time in the country’s history, prompting all three local 24-hour news channels on Pay-TV to offer wall-to-wall coverage of the trial in 2014. According to Cornell Law School bulletin, the United States Supreme Court has cited many civic and process-related purposes served by open trials: they help to ensure the criminal defendant a fair and accurate adjudication of guilt or innocence; they provide a public demonstration of fairness; they discourage perjury, the misconduct of participants, and decisions based on secret bias or partiality. Open trials educate the public about the criminal justice system, give legitimacy to it, and have the prophylactic effect of enabling the public to see justice done.

This is the noble way to go. Nigeria should not be left behind. Any attempt to employ the courts as instruments of persecution should be resisted.

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