The new directives by the federal government ordering terrorism trial in camera is perceived among media practitioners as another move to gag the media and return practitioners to the dark days of fears, KEHINDE OSASONA writes.
At first, it made the rounds like rumour until a directive came few days ago barring the media from covering terrorism trials in Nigeria’s court.
This is contrary to Constitution provisions on free and fair trial. For a trial to be free and fair, Section 36 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria says it must be carried out openly and publicly so as not to violently go against the provision of Section 22 of the same Constitution which gives the media the rights and responsibility to ensure that the provisions of Chapter Two of the constitution dealing with the fundamental objectives and directive principles of state policy are upheld and that the government is held accountable to the people of Nigeria.”
Under the new directives, which take immediate effect, the trial of terrorism-related offences is to be conducted in camera.
Not only that, it has also become a criminal offence for journalists to cover the terrorism proceeding in court, except where the trial judge grants permission.
The document also provides that anyone who violates the practice directions is deemed to have committed an offence under the terrorism law.
What played out at the resumed trial of IPOB Leader, Nnamdi Kanu, a day after the directives was churned out, where journalists were completely barred from the courtroom confirmed the fear that the country might be heading back to the dark days where government concealed things that were supposed to be done in public glare.
Sadly, the development has triggered new constitutional debate and has now pitched the media, legal practitioners, and the government against each other in fresh rounds of debate.
This is as stakeholders and media organisations are reacting and calling for its withdrawal.
It reads partly: “A person who contravenes an order or direction made under these Practice Directions shall be deemed to have committed an offence contrary to section 34(5) of the Terrorism (Prevention) Act, 2011 (as amended).
“These Practice Directions shall be cited as the Federal High Court Practice Directions (On Trial of Terrorism Cases) 2022,” it says.
The rules also make provision for the exclusion of “any person other than the parties and their legal representatives” from terrorism proceedings, just as the document equally empowers the trial court to “make an order as to any electronic devices that would be allowed during any proceeding.
“Proceedings of offences of terrorism, subject to the provisions of section 232 of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, 2015 and section 34 of the Terrorism (Prevention) Act, 2011 (as amended), shall be held in camera or as may be ordered by the Court,” the document said.
The statement dated April 5, the new practice direction was issued by court’s Chief Information Officer, Catherine Oby Christopher, and signed by the Chief Judge of the Court, John Tsoho.
The directive is in the exercise of the CJ constitutional powers as enshrined in Section 254 of Nigeria’s Constitution.
Some of the reasons reeled out to justify the federal government’s actions in the document include that it would guarantee security and safety of parties; personnel of law enforcement agencies and the Judiciary; as well as members of the general public; while ensuring expeditious and fair trial of persons suspected of having committed acts of terrorism.
The directive also stated that the perimeters of the court sitting over a terrorism trial shall also be secured and any person who contravenes an order or direction made under the new practice directions shall be deemed to have committed an offence contrary to section 34(5) of the Terrorism (Prevention) Act, 2011 (as amended).
Kanu’s trial as litmus test
As anticipated the new order played out at the resumed trial of IPOB leader, Mazi Nnamdi Kanu, who is currently standing trial before Justice Binta Nyako of the federal high court, in Abuja.
Aside the fact that the usual large number of supporters, activists, observers and even press men who usually thronged the court were reduced, the water-tight security measure put in place by the Department of State Security (DSS) completely prohibited anyone from getting near the courtroom.
During the trial, cameramen from major television stations from within and outside the country were ordered to shut down and face it on an uncompleted building opposite the court premises.
Senior lawyer kicks
While countering the move in an interview with journalists, Human Rights Lawyer and Activist, Mike Ozekhome (SAN) faulted some aspects of the new practice direction of the government and vowed to challenge it legally.
The senior lawyer, while speaking in Abuja, warned that Nigeria’s legal system does not admit of secret trials, stating “we are not a country of witches and wizards operating in a coven.”
The activist noted further that the new directives were inconsistent with the constitution.
Ozekhome said: “I do not believe in secret trials because section 36 of the constitution talks about open trials.
“I do not mind if they move the venue to another place that does not disturb other litigants, but I’m worried about the provision that screens off journalists, the fourth estate of the realm.
“If you stifle information, the wrong information can emanate from the rumour mill and that is a more dangerous issue.
“I am against the issue of making it look like a secret trial as if a trial is like a gathering of witches and wizards in a coven. It should be a public trial that the whole world can watch. I’m going to challenge some portions of the new practice directions as being unconstitutional.
“So when you prevent the media from covering a trial, it may lead to generation within the rumour mill of things that never happened, which again may jeopardize such trials.”
He stated, however, that he had no problems about witnesses being screened, stating it was a good decision capable of safeguarding them.
On the location, he said: “I’m not against shifting of the venue which is fair enough, but am against the issue of making it look like a secret trial.
It should be a public trial which the whole world must watch.”
Dissatisfied with the development, some sections of the media have condemned the move, stating the media cannot be gagged under any guise.
They argued that the move has not only tried to take the power of the media, its rights are being infringed upon and taken away despite constitutional pronouncement that empowers it to carry out such functions without any hindrance.