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JOURNALISTS' BRUSHES WITH NIGERIAN JUDGES

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The practitioners of the pen profession or media workers in Nigeria are usually addressed in the fanciful title of members of the fourth Estate of the Realm to depict the symbolic essence of the functions of the workers in the media houses of both electronic and print who gather and disseminate factual stories objectively in compliance with the time tested ethical code of balance, truth and the realization by the practitioners that NEWS is sacred but personal opinion of writers are free. Journalists occupy the position of those who watches over the members of the other three estate of the realm namely the executive, judiciary and the legislature. Because of this legendary supervisory power of the media the practitioners were called the WATCH DOGS of the society because like the good vigilant DOG, the journalists are expected to be vigilant and actively awake to their sacred duty of reporting accurate and truthful information that will inform, educate and entertain the citizens.

With the coming to being of the 1999 Constitution and the emergence of the democratic dispensation, the media workers have occupied a very strategic position in the hierarchy of those professionals that are expected to meaningfully monitor the activities of the actors in the political and economic fields essentially and report their factual findings to the reading public made up principally by the citizenry who are the true owners of the Sovereignty of Nigeria from where those in position of political power and authority derive their legitimacy and mandate to govern the polity in compliance with extant provisions of the law. The framers of the constitution of 1999 were well aware of the key role the media workers play in preserving the integrity of the nation's sovereignty so much so that the media was singled out for specific mention in the supreme body of law and told primarily in section 22 to act as the nation's conscience and the real vanguards of the nation that should monitor and ensure that those in position of authority in the polity serve the public interest and public good in strict compliance with the tenets, letters and spirit of the constitution and other validly passed laws and statutes in the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

Opinions are unanimous that the media in Nigeria has to a large extent continued to discharge this onerous constitutional task enshrined in the constitution and media owners, media managers and media workers are constantly put on their toes by the general public and constantly reminded of their sacred duty to the people of Nigeria even as those members of the media that detract or deviate from the fundamental ethics that govern the practice of the media profession are dragged before the relevant organs and ombudsmen or rather institutions set up to provide remedial redress for acts of omission or commission that offends the ethics of the media profession in Nigeria and media laws in Nigeria are so explicit in that journalists who willfully violate the sacred code of conduct and the media ethics by 'wounding' or offending the public standing of any individual member of the society without sufficient factual evidence are brought before the competent courts of law to face judicial proceedings that border on libel or slander. Individuals who have in the recent recorded history especially in the contemporary times in Nigeria felt that their good names and image have been tainted or damaged irretrievably by certain publications they viewed as untrue or outright falsehood have had to file and proceeded with judicial cases against journalists and media managers that are so indicted and in most of the cases, the judiciary have turned in decisions either in favor or against the plaintiffs or the accused.

There are several decided cases on matters of libel and other alleged violations of media laws that are in operation in Nigeria but this is not the focus of this piece and so we will not delve into citing those authorities from the decided cases that have had to be taken to the highest court in Nigeria which is the Supreme Court of Nigeria.The late legal expert Chief Gani Fawehinmi[SAN] did a very excellent work by documenting detailed evidence of some of these landmark media related cases that stretched upto the Supreme Court of Nigeria in the past five decades or so.

We are very much concerned about an ugly development that has gradually gained currency so much so that most of these alleged violators of the rights of journalists to practice their profession [Not 'trade' because journalists are not traders] are becoming even more daring and brazen by the day may be because no violator of the fundamental rights of journalists to practice their profession has been punished in line with due process. This is because either the media house where these journalists work do not pursue these disturbing matters to their logical conclusion or that journalists who are brutalized in the line of their duty often become too soft to institute cases in the law court and are therefore quick to accept apologies from these Shylock violators of their rights which may account for the hardening of the dimensions of violations that journalists and other media workers suffer daily. The Federal Government recently chased out journalists from their vantage position at the Murtallah Mohammed International Airport Ikeja because those Aviation reporters have in the recent times reported certain stories and photographs that were considered offensive including the photograph of a top monarch in the South West who was caught jumping into the publicly funded Presidential jet belonging to the Presidential fleets that ought to be used for strictly official functions by the President and his Vice. The Federal Government officials are adept at violating the rights of journalists to practice their profession. This is already a notorious fact that has been in the public domain for ages.

This writer is even more disturbed that the violators of these fundamental human rights of journalists to practice their profession in compliance with international best practices are even members of the legal profession [inner bar] that ought to be the lead change agents and defenders of the rights of the Nigerian citizens to be properly informed with quality, sound, objective and truthful information, education and are appropriately entertained in the best ways possible by the media workers. Nigerian Judges and members of the Magistracy who ought to be the champions of the cause of justice by the virtue of the fact that they are metaphorically called the ministers in the Temple of Justice have turned their judicial 'might' against certain journalists that are detailed to cover proceedings in the law courts that are scattered all across Nigeria. In Abuja for instance, in most of the superior courts, politically charged and controversial cases usually come up and journalists are detailed to follow up on all of these matters so that the Nigerian people can be properly and competently informed of the outcomes of these matters that essentially impacts on their economic, political, religious or cultural rights as citizens of the sovereign entity of Nigeria. Some Journalists in the nation's capital have suffered spectacular psychological trauma and physical brutality from some of these judges who sometimes resort to the use of self help to seek to stop journalists from following up on some of these sensitive cases especially in matters that members of the public are suspicious that there could be possibility of insider collusion and compromise to undermine the rule of law and therefore jeopardize public interest.

About a year ago, a journalist with The Guardian Newspaper in the nation's capital Mr. Lemmy Ughegbe who covers the court rooms was harassed serially by a Magistrate who sought to stop journalist from covering and reporting a corruption related trial of a certain high profile accused person suspected to have committed horrendous financial indiscretion as a functionary of Government. It took the intervention of some very senior members of the bar for this magistrate to hearken to the voice of reason and wise counsel by releasing this journalist from the false 'imprisonment' within the court room that she imposed for the alleged disobedience of the journalist to vacate the court room during the pendency of the hearing of that particular matter. At the National Industrial Court the other day, the presiding judge summarily subpoenaed the judiciary reporter of the Daily Sun Newspaper in Abuja Mr. Godwin Tsa for allegedly writing an 'offending' story from a press statement that described as 'black market injunction', the injunction obtained by the Federal Government to undermine the determination of the Nigerian public to proceed on street protest against the removal of the subsidy on the pump prices of premium motor spirit [fuel]. In this instance, it also took the intervention of some very senior members of the bar from halting the resolve of the presiding judge at the National Industrial Court from sending the journalist to jail for practicing his profession.

The mother of all abuses of the fundamental human rights of journalists to go about their profession and write quality stories for the purposes of preserving democracy and the Rule of Law happened in Lagos when a magistrate Mrs. Aderonke Oshiniyi ordered a detachment of well armed police operatives from the notorious Area 'F' in Ikeja Lagos to arrest and detain thirteen journalists working for thirteen different respectable media houses. The journalists were brutalized, physically harassed and forced into the rickety van of the police operatives and driven to the detention facility of the police in Ikeja and were only released several hours after when some very senior lawyers and leaders of the Nigerian Bar Association intervened. The magistrate sought to prevent the thirteen journalists from carrying out their constitutional duty and unfortunately the police is ever so willing to participate in any process that offer them the opportunity to 'deal' decisively with journalists because members of the Nigerian Police Force know that the Nigerian media is alive to their responsibility and are ever so willing to expose the malfeasance noticeable in the Nigeria Police Force. The Nigeria Police of today view most journalists as 'enemy combatants' that should be taught rough lessons on how not to report every dirty thing the reporters see in the Nigerian Police Force. In this Ikeja, Lagos case of violations of the human rights of the thirteen journalists by the magistrate, the umbrella body representing the interest of the media workers, the Nigeria Union of Journalists has announced that it has instructed her legal team to institute one hundred million Naira suit against the alleged violators including the office f the Inspector General of Police. This is noteworthy.

But again these sad stories of frequent abuses of the human rights of journalists to practice their profession is an eye opener that should make the journalists to ask probing question why some judges hate them and to proceed to fairly investigate the alleged cases of corruption that some of the judges in Nigeria have committed and are still in the process of committing so that the litigants who are at the receiving end of the corrupt and inept justice system that has almost collapsed under the heavy weight of corruption can be rescued. But in doing so, journalists must respect their sacred code of conduct and ethics. I am of the opinion that only corrupt judges who hate openness will misuse their power as judicial officers to stop journalists from gaining access to report cases going on in their court rooms. Only the guilty are afraid.

In her well researched book titled 'The Journalists Wife', Mrs. Ochuko Blessing Ohu, the wife of the assassinated news editor of The Guardian newspaper [Mr. Bayo Ohu] wrote that the history of the hatred of journalists goes back to the colonial times when the then oppressors felt that the fathers of modern day practice of journalism such as Nnamdi Azikiwe, Herbert Macauley, Chief. Ajuluchukwu, and media owners like Chief Obafemi Awolowo were the major pivots of the anti-colonial movement and were at the fore front of those that succeeded in gaining independence for Nigeria in 1960.

Written By Emmanuel Onwubiko

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