AREGBESOLA, OYINLOLA AND MEDIA REVIEW OF CASES
Whenever I reflect on the Aregbesola/Oyinlola case in Osun State, I always wonder whether it is being tried by the media or the courts or whether it is not actually the media itself that is on trial. The immortal Lord Denning once warned elements trying cases in the media that judges won't be influenced by views held by the media.
Agreeing with the Jurist may not be attractive to political elements in Nigeria who have now seen the media as an effective remote sensor to guide-tour judges towards giving them the kind of judgment they want.
Reading media reviews of the popular election petition case of Rauf Aregbesola of the Action Congress against the election of Governor Olagunsoye Oyinlola of Osun State, you would think the Justices of the Appeal Court hearing it actually needed to be tutored by the media on what the case is all about . In this particular case, a particular section of the media has even introduced a dangerous angle telling the court what it MUST do irrespective of the facts before it.
Take a 'review' in the Punch Newspaper of Monday November 15, 2010, captioned: 'Aregbesola vs Oyinlola' An Acid Test for Appeal Court:' The generous two page piece in the newspaper allocated no less than three quarters of the space to Aregbesola's arguments in support of his case and gave only five paragraphs to Oyinlola's defence as submitted before the Appeal Court Justices in Ibadan. If the intention is lost on the reader, he is immediately jolted by the concluding sentence of the 'review' as the writer impudently ordered the court to do what would please him and his sponsors.
The writer ended by subtly harassing the judges of the Court of Appeal with insulting words that 'the best legacy that Justice Ogunbiyi-led panel can give to stakeholders is to make a pronouncement that will satisfy' him and those he described as 'the majority of those who braced (sic) the odds on April 14, 2007.' The questions arise: Who are the stakeholders? And who are 'those who braced (sic) the odds and those on the majority in Osun State?'
It is obvious that this practice of analyzing cases before our law courts by the media in anticipation of the delivery of judgments is a new phenomenon and dimension to politicking which has been employed by propagandists. While the intention should quite naturally be honest interpretation of court proceedings and not intentional colouring of judicial records, it is regrettable that merchants of half-truth have taken over.
Every human endeavour has its peculiar ethics. The analyses of cases before our law courts could only have been prompted by a very strong intention to invite attention. And for what purpose? I believe this development could only be directed at influencing human thoughts and conducts, particularly those of the arbiters. Cardozo, a re-known justice of the US Supreme Court also had cause to warn of the dangers inherent in assailing the courts with media missiles. Specifically, he warned that ' the tides and currents which engulf the rest of men do not turn aside in their course and pass judges by' thus underlining the dangers posed to a democracy by a desperate band of politicians who nudge the media to corrupt its liberty into licence not minding that that would predispose that institution to abuse.
Experts in media communications know too well that avoidance of the central facts in the issue under reference is an imposition of the individual judgment of the commentators. More importantly, deliberate publishing of inaccurate information means that the public's decisions and attitudes will be incorrectly shaped with the strong likelihood of a destruction of the social fabric.
I understand that one of the elementary rules of the profession of journalism is that in matters like the one under reference, a reporter must not seek to determine what is good for the audience but rather report the facts as they develop.
The conduct of political actors also calls for concern. It is a matter of grave concern that participants in the electoral process have been bad actors with regard to how they react to losses.
The umpires could only be found wanting by courts of competent jurisdiction and not by the perpetration of violence and resort to encouraging civil disorder. One highly condemnable attitude of the political class is the double standards employed in their reactions to the pronouncements of judicial bodies adjudicating in electoral issues. When court pronouncements are favourable, the judiciary is described as the best thing to happen to Nigeria. When the pronouncements are unfavourable, the courts and the judges are derided with vitriolic descriptions unbecoming of responsible politicians who appear ready to go to any extent to justify their actions, even if it means destroying Nigeria and the very basis for the enthronement of democracy.
When desperate politicians forge and tender documents to win political posts and proceed with impunity to unleash vicious media attacks on the judiciary for fear of losing because of the hopelessness of their case, then the nation is in trouble. It would seem appropriate to recall the observations of Hon. Justice Niki Tobi, JSC, when delivering the lead judgment in the suit instituted by Atiku Abubakar against the election of former President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua. In the judgment delivered on Friday December 12, 2008, Niki Tobi JSC, lamented that 'the way politics is played in this country frightens me every dawning day.
It is a fight to finish affair. Nobody accepts defeat at the polls. The judges must be the final bus stop. And when they come to the judges and the judges in their professional minds, give judgment, they call them all sorts of names. To the party who wins the case, the judiciary is the best place and the real hope of the common man. To the party who loses, the judiciary is bad. Even when a party loses a case because of serious blunder of a counsel, it is the judge who is blamed…. I feel strongly that Nigerian judges be allowed to perform their judicial functions to the best of their ability. No amount of name-calling would deter Nigerian judges from performing their constitutional functions of deciding cases between two or more competing parties.'
It is an established fact that the major fulcrum on which the Appeal Court, sitting in Ibadan on Monday 30th March, 2009 ordered a re-trial of the governorship petition filed by Aregbesola against Oyinlola rested on a purported 'police report' which has been discovered to have been forged. Opinions expressed in the publications under reference have failed to inform the public that the lower tribunal did not admit the said fake 'police report' simply because the author did not appear at the tribunal even when he was subpoenaed to give evidence on the document.
The analyses contained in the newspapers failed to highlight the fact that Rauf Aregbesola failed and refused to tender the forged documents at the re-trial and at the Appeal Court. The reporters also failed to mention the fact that Aregbesola is currently answering to charges of forgery of documents and criminal conduct with intent to pervert the course of justice. Six witnesses have been lined up by the prosecution to give evidence when the case resumes on 29th November, 2010 at an Abuja High Court.
Universally, the media engage in advocacy, for business, political and social reasons. however, let us never forget that reports and analyses of court proceedings should be balanced and should not, on any account be turned into mere public service announcements, in a manner that would suggest that some sections of the media have been compromised. Members of the general public deserve to be adequately informed through a balanced presentation of facts in cases like the one under reference.
Attempting to harass the judiciary and making of frivolous accusations are clearly unethical and would not do hack-writers any good. That is not the way it is done in civilized societies which we very often use as the standard for democratic conduct and the best practice of the rule of law. Our courts too should make it known (to political litigants) through their decisions that the law is guided by facts presented according to the law before them and that they are never swayed by the currents of sponsored emotions served hot through the media. I rest my case.
Williams writes from Lagos.