By Ikechukwu Nnochiri
ABUJA – The National Human Rights Commission, NHRC, today, expressed displeasure over the conduct of an Abuja Chief Magistrate, Mrs. Zainab Bashir, who on Monday, ordered her police orderly to handcuff a reporter with the Guardian Newspaper, Mr Lemmy Ughegbe.
In a statement , the NHRC issued in Abuja today, it described the attitude of the Chief Magistrate as uncivilized, uncalled for, unacceptable and an infringement on the right of the journalists as guaranteed by Sections 22 and 39(i) of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
â€œThe action of the Magistrate isÂ an assault and a fundamental breach of democratic norms. We condemn the renewed incidence of assault on media practitioners while carrying out their legitimate duties. It serves to remind us of the dark days of military impunity.
â€œwe therefore call on the National Judicial Council, NJC, and relevant authorities to take appropriate action to redress this anomaly which appears to have portrayed the judiciary, the bastion of our democracy in the bad light.
â€œAll persons and authorities must realize that the nation is now operating a constitutional democracy which guarantees the doctrine of separation of powers and recognizes the role of the press as the Forth Estate of the Realm.
â€œThe commission also uses this opportunity to renew our call to the National Assembly to as a matter of urgency pass the freedom of information Bill.
â€œDemocracy can only flourish under a free press where people have the right to know and governance is accountable to the peopleâ€ read the statement.
It would be recalled that Chief Magistrate Bashir on Monday, not only sent journalists out of her court, but ordered that the Guardian reporter be handcuffed and pushed into the dock, threatening to send him to prison over an undisclosed offence.
How It All happened Yesterday
The pandemonium followed an order by a serving Magistrate, Mrs Zainab Bashir, for the arrest and detention of the Guardian reporter, Mr Lemmy Ughegbe over his alleged reluctance to obey her directive against covering proceedings in her court.
The case the Magistrate was hearing at the time the scene took place was a criminal charge involving a N7.5bn fraud in Zenith Bank Plc.
She said she did not want any journalists in her court. She complained they were in the habit of misrepresenting facts and that she had had a bitter experience from them.
Although many journalists escaped the onslaught of Magistrate Bashir, having jumped out of court in obeisance to her order, Mr. Lemmy Ughegbe was however not lucky as she ordered him to be arrested, handcuffed and sent to prison.
But the Chairman of the FCT, Abuja council of the Nigeria Union of Journalists, Mr. Jacob Edi who immediately responded to distress calls, has petitioned the Judicial Service Commission, National Judicial Council and all other stakeholders with a call on them to review Bashirâ€™s continued presence on the Bench.
Trouble started for the Journalists when one of them allegedly called on the Chairman of the FCT branch of the Nigeria Union of Journalists drawing his attention to the enforcement of the disciplinary measures against Judges and Magistrates whose notoriety for lateness to court have transcended bounds of professional decency.
The report that somebody had telephoned the NBA Chairman of her lateness to court was allegedly sent to Bashir who came late to the court.
The court sits by 9:00am but she was about two hours behind schedule.
In reaction to the alleged report by the journalist, she ordered out all the Journalists in her court room.
According to her, Journalists had â€˜messedâ€™ her up three years ago when they reported her physical assault against her housemaid on suspicion that she (housemaid) was having an affair with her husband.
She said, â€œI have a strong hatred for Journalists. I had a bitter experience from them before. They have never been my friend and I have nothing to do with them even now and in the future. No Journalists can claim to be my friend. Where are the Journalists? Fish them out. They should leave my court immediately. If you are a journalist, leave my court room. What are you people doing here? What do you want here? It is not allowed. That was how you people messed me up three years ago by reporting falsehood against me. If you are a journalist leave my court.â€
Replying her, Mr Ughegbe stood up and told her: â€œYour Worship, we are here to perform our constitutionally guaranteed duty of covering the courtâ€™s proceedingsâ€
The courage to face her and defy her order further infuriated her as she turned to her Legal Assistant, asking him, â€œI asked you to clear all these journalists from the court. Why didnâ€™t you do that?”
But the Legal Assistant said, â€œThey (journalists) are in disguise. I couldnâ€™t identify themâ€.
At this point, Bashir ordered her police orderly to handcuffÂ The Guardian correspondent, who was almost making his way out of the courtroom and brought him into the dock.
She said, â€œThe Police should get him out. Handcuff him and take him to prison. Tomorrow I will listen to contempt charge against him. I am not a friend of journalists. They have reported nonsense three years ago against me. Let me teach them a lessonâ€.
On getting into the dock, the Magistrate ordered Ughegbe to be taken to prison until the next day.
But as the police made attempt to take him to prison, other reporters went into strong protest, vowing not to allow any policeman take him away from them.
Mr. Ughegbe was paraded for about ten minutes in the court premises.
But for the intervention of some Lawyers, thugs who were brought by one of the concerned parties in the case would have destroyed the camera of Channels Television, Independent Television and NTA crew.
While the strong protest from his colleagues was going on amidst solidarity chants and screams of disapproval, a lawyer, Frank Ikpe advised the Magistrate to tread softly and release him.
It would be recalled that Bashir had three years ago been reported in the Leadership Newspapers to have beaten her housemaid to stupor for allegedly having sexual relationship with her husband, leading to her being admitted at the Federal Staff Clinic at Garki 11, Abuja.
The NUJ in its petition to the Chairman of the Judicial Service Commission signed by Mr. Edi called on the body to call her to order.
According to the NUJ, â€œHer Honourâ€™s conduct has become worrisome in view of the fact that it calls to question her emotional and psychological balance and once again brings to fore her history of violence.â€
The NUJ recalled that sometime in 2008, Bashir caused several body injuries to her niece/house help on the mere suspicion that the niece/house help was having an affair with her husband adding that she did not stop at that but proceeded to the Federal Medical Hospital, Garki II and fought with her niece/house help in full public glare.
He was latter released sequel to vehement protestations by Judicial correspondents in court, while the magistrate fumed about a story she said had portrayed her in bad light 3 years ago.