Vice President Yemi Osinbajo and former President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) and human rights lawyer Femi Falana (SAN) have thrown their weight behind journalists ‘ coverage of virtual trials.
The eminent lawyers said since section 36 of the 1999 Constitution provides that court sittings must be in public, journalists participating in covering virtual sittings would help to project information to the world, thereby reducing corruption.
They spoke at a zoom conference titled “Media coverage of virtual court proceedings: prospects and challenges” organized by an online news platform, Gavel International.
In his keynote address, Osinbajo said reporting of court proceedings was a crucial exercise of the right to fair hearing. According to him, that right would be given full expression when journalists are given access to the encrypted confines of virtual proceedings.
He said: “I was impressed when the Supreme Court by its judgment validated virtual court hearing considering the way it has elevated technicalities in the past. Adequate means can be provided to ensure that virtual court hearings are public, that the press and members of the public can access the proceedings”
To him, the reasonable thing to do is for the host of a court proceeding, such as the registrar, to send an invitation link of the proceedings to journalists to join.He added that the practice direction of courts would have to be amended to accommodate these emerging trends.
The VP pointed out that anyone who publishes virtual court proceedings would be subjected to the same regulations with the traditional media, irrespective of whether the person is a blogger or other social media content provider.
He said: “I am hoping that the opportunity we have in virtual proceedings would also be an opportunity to dispense with several of the unnecessary technical rules that we have in our adjectival laws such as evidence and procedure. Hopefully, we would be able to get to the heart of matters such that we would not be bucked down by a lot of technicalities.”
CHIEF Wole Olanipekun, (SAN) represented by his son, Bode Olanipekun (SAN), said the media must be entitled to court documents, including classified documents.
Citing a decision of the Court of Appeal, he said: “To ensure that evidence communicated to the court is communicated to the public, the media must be given access to the evidence, which the court itself has.”He said the court agreed that the media must be given access to documents tendered in court.
“Our judicial system from the point of view of Supreme Court decisions absolutely abhors secrecy,” he stated. Olanipekun argued that the level of transparency of any virtual hearing would be enhanced if the recording of the proceeding is made available to the press.
FALANA, who lamented poor funding of the judiciary, expressed concern that neither the NBA nor the judiciary has demanded COVID-19 palliatives from the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN).
“Journalists have a duty to demand public hearing. Stop saying sources. Use the law and use the Freedom of Information Act to demand from the attorney general why the judicial panel of inquiry is sitting in secret over Ibrahim Magu.
“No journalist should be made to believe that certain proceedings are confidential. It is a public hearing and it must be made public. The person must advance a cogent reason why journalists must not report to the whole world. We must have journalists do their job. If any journalist is hindered from doing his work, tell me, we will go to court to challenge such opacity,” he promised.
THE NBA presidential aspirant, Dele Adesina (SAN) noted that if journalists can enter into a court and blast the story to the world and satisfy the public hearing requirement, virtual hearing that can accommodate more than 50 people couldn’t be less public.