By Richard Akinnola
I saw it coming. Right from the moment of the mid-night so-called sting operation by the operatives of the Department of State Services (DSS) in October last year, the breaking down of doors and a deliberate humiliation of some judges – l knew the case had been bungled.
In an attempt to give legitimacy to an otherwise despicable modus and acts of crude vendetta against some judges, the DSS embarked on serial media trial of the arrested judges.
Trial by the media, refers to a situation whereby the media create a perception that an individual or group of individuals are guilty of a criminal offence, through the dissemination of prejudicial materials, with the intention of creating a perception of guilt.
According to Prof. P.K. Fogam, in a paper titled “Crusade against corruption and the effects of trial by the media”, at an event of National Association of Judicial Correspondents (NAJUC),”Trial is essentially a process to be carried out by the courts. In fact, ‘trial’ is a word which is associated with the process of justice. It is the essential component in any judicial system that an accused should have a fair trial. Trial by the media would therefore be an undue interference in the process of justice delivery”.
After the clampdown on some of the judges, the DSS regaled us with titilating stories of humogous cash discoveries in the house of Justice Niyi Ademola, judge of the Federal High court.
However, upon his arraignment along with his wife, the charges brought, particularly in respect of the amount allegedly found in his house, were at variance with the charges.
And when the trial commenced, with each prosecution witness mounting the witness box, it was quite evident that these charges could not be sustained. It turned out that some of the evidences adduced by some prosecution witnesses actually went in favour of the defendants. One of such witnesses, Babatunde Adepoju (PW. 16), a DSS operative, told the court that he could not link the alleged gratification with any case handled by the judge.
It was quite obvious that the charges could not be sustained as there were no evidences to substantiate the charges.
As Justice Niki Tobi, JSC (as he then was) once posited, courts of law cannot go to the market places of public opinion to shop for evidences on which to base its judgments.
It therefore became imperative that a no-case submission would be entered, a move which Justice Jude Okeke sanctioned on wednesday in his ruling when he discharged and acquitted the judge, his wife and a lawyer, Joe Agi (SAN).
Despite this acquittal, there would still be many people, who, having been fed with the public show of media trial, would continue to argue against this acquittal, even when there is an avenue to lodge an appeal. That is the power of media trial.
I should know, having written on the judiciary for over 30 years. Sometime in 1986, the NTA Newsline repeatedly regaled us with the confession of a supposed notorious armed robber called Yemoo. A muscular, well-built guy, on Yemoo’s face and neck were all manner of marks, mementos of various physical skirmishes.
Each time he appeared on the television, Yemoo who regal us of his supposed various robbery exploits.
Eventually, he was charged before the Ikeja Robbery and Firearms Tribunal, then headed by Justice Waidi Oshodi, who usually did not waste time in condemning robbery accused to death by firing squad. But after the trial of Yemoo, it was found out that he was tortured to make all those admissions of various robberies. Yemoo actually was a notorious motor park tout and the police felt the only way to get him out of the society was to torture him to accept being an armed robber.
Despite his proclivity in condemning accused robbers to death, Justice Oshodi saw through the set-up and rather sent Yemoo to imprisonment. The media trial on NTA was to achieve a purpose but the presiding judge saw through it.
How many people are aware today that Justice Nnamdi Dimgba of the Federal High court, Abuja, who was similarly brutalised by operatives of DSS in the October, 2016 raid, has resumed sitting?
Justice Dimgba, a decent and cerebral judge was perhaps targeted by the DSS for repeatedly ubraiding the DSS over the Service’ disobedience to his orders.
Despite the fact that the warrant to search his house did not bear his name, he was psychologically brutalised, his nephew assaulted as the operatives forced their way into his house that midnight.
The DSS sent a spurious petition against him to the National Judicial Council (NJC), alleging corrupt practices.
But in a letter dated February 23, 2017, addressed to Justice Dimgba, the NJC said the body had exonerated him of all the allegations against him by the DSS.
The letter titled:”Re: Corrupt practices and professional misconduct by Justice Nnamdi Dimgba of Abuja Division of the Federal High court”, read inter alia:
“The report of the Committee set up by the National Judicial Council, under the Chairmanship of Justice B.A. Adejumo (OFR), following the petition dated August 5, 2016, written against you by Mr Ahmed Ahmed on behalf of the Director General of the Department of Stste Services (DSS), was considered by the Council, at its meeting held on February 23, 2017.
“At the end of deliberation, Council accepted the findings of the aforesaid committee that petitioner was unable to prove that you misconducted yourself or acted contrary to the Revised Code of Conduct for Judicial Officers of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and that the petitioner was unable to establish any act of corrupt practice against you, but rather withdrew the allegation.
“Consequently, Council decided to exonerate you of all the allegations levelled against you by the petitioner”.
Meanwhile, in the eyes of the public, which had been experiencing excitable orgasm, based on the media trial of this innocent judge, Justice Dimgba had been convicted in the court of public opinion.
And how many Nigerians are similarly aware that Mrs Patricia Etteh, a former Speaker of the House of Reps, who was hounded out of office for alleged corruption, was subsequently discharged and acquitted by the court after a long trial? The woman was tried and convicted in court of public opinion.
One needs once again to emphasise the need to steer clear of media trial, as there is a need to balance this with the right of the accused to a fair trial, particularly regarding pre-trial publicity, otherwise known as PTP.
As M. Hermida posits, “with PTP, there is a possibility jurors have been exposed to prejudicial information which would be taken into account in determining a defendant’s guilt. This would render the trial unfair. When the media disrupt a criminal trial in this way, they pervert the judicial process and threaten the administration of justice”.(Hermida, M. (1995), TRIAL BY TABLOID, St Thomas Law Review, 7, 197-216).
Kate Sambrooks of Cardiff University, in adumbrating on this, made reference to the popular “Taylor and Taylor” case, where she said:”In this case, two sisters were convicted of stabbing to death, the wife of Michelle Taylor’s lover. The Court of Appeal described the publicity surrounding the case as ‘unremitting, extensive, sensational, inaccurate and misleading’. (Davies, N. (1994). The newspapers who hounded the Taylor sisters.Www.nickdavies.net/ 1994/11/01).
When the media wittingly or unwittingly allow itself to be used as purveyors of falsehood in the form of media trial and the objects of such media trials eventually got exculpated in the court of law, it evinces credibility problem for such media outfits. It therefore becomes imperative for the media to be circumspect in this regard.
As Prof. Fogam admonished, that “the crusade against corruption must continue. It is within the media to expose corruption but it must not embark on trial, because at the end of the day, victory will not be decided only in the court of public opinion but also in the court of justice”.
Akinnola is the Director, Media Law Centre.