UMAR’S THREAT TO JAIL JOURNALISTS

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Sonnie Ekwowusi writes that respect is reciprocal

Last week the Chairman of the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) Danladi Umar threatened journalists with 28 years imprisonment. Umar accuses journalists of publishing the concocted and discredited proceedings that transpired at CCT on March 18. Said Umar, “I will not hesitate to bring the full weight of the law heavily on the person…The journalist will languish there (prison) and may remain there until I retire – that is about 28 years from now…The person will be summarily sent to prison because that is contempt….”

According to Umar, on Tuesday March 19, 2019 some Nigerian newspapers published the following: “Onnoghen accuses FG of mutilating his asset declaration form”, “Drama as Onnoghen accuses FG of tampering with asset form”, “Onnoghen accuses FG of doctoring asset declaration form”. Umar states that whereas Onnoghen’s counsel, Adegboyega Awomolo, SAN only complained that Onnoghen’s asset declaration forms were in loose form but the journalists maliciously went ahead to report that the federal government mutilated and tampered with the asset declaration form.

I have read and re-read the above reproach issued by Umar to Nigerian journalists and the Nigerian press as a whole. There is no doubt in my mind that any spoken word or act done inside or outside of a court room or a newspaper publication of the proceedings of the court which is intended or likely to prejudice a fair trial of conduct of proceedings of a court or intended or likely to interfere with or obstruct the fair administration of justice or intended or likely to impugn the integrity of the court or judge is punishable by imprisonment or fine as criminal contempt. Additionally, a misquoting of court proceedings or a publication of court proceedings which is calculated to affect or influence the evidence which a witness may give in court is punishable as contempt. Trial of judges through irresponsible newspaper publication is capable of undermining the independence of the judiciary. Small wonder Lord Hailsham once felt able to say, while speaking at a banquet in London, that there are dangers in trial of judges through irresponsible newspaper comments. Justice, he said, is not a cloistered virtue, let there be some self-discipline, let criticism be well informed, well researched and temperately expressed. In Due Process of Law, Master of the Rolls Lord Denning writes that judges in particular should be respected and honoured. Once, Denning decried the case of a man who threw a rotten tomato on a judge during a court session.

Having said this, the intimidating tone of Umar’s reproach is unconscionable. The power to punish contempt is not a power to be recklessly deployed to assuage the tyrannical and vindictive feelings of a presiding judge. A judge should not intimidate, harass, abuse and insult journalists before the court. Ever since 1859 Rev. Henry Townsend’s Iwe Irohin Yoruba (the first newspaper in Nigeria) made its debut, the print media has effectively been performing its traditional function as societal watchdog in Nigeria to the best of its ability. Given its role in constitutional democracy, the press is dubbed the Fourth Estate of the Realm, after the legislature. In common parlance, the press is simply referred to as the watchdog of the society. Therefore the press is not a societal nuisance. Nigerian journalists come within the purview of the law and their activities are governed by law. Judges and tribunal chairs should learn to season their pronouncements in open court with the ingredient of mortification. In the case of Salami V Ifenekwe (1996) 5 NWLR (Part 450) at 564 at 586 Uwaifo JCA (as he then was) and Musdafer JCA (as he then was) viva voce stated that a court of law must be run in a solemn and dignified manner because it is the temple of justice. No intimidation. No threats. The court “is not a pandemonium from which insults” are hauled at perceived enemies. A judge should keep his cool at all times. In the words of Hon. Justice Kayode Eso, JSC (of blessed memory) “A Judge should never be rude, as a result of, or over-sensitive to remarks made even against him in court”. Lord Denning advised judges to desist from talking too much in open court. Quoting Lord Eldon L.C, Lord Denning said that truth is best discovered by powerful short statements.

In any case, is chair Umar empowered by law to imprison journalists for contempt as he threatened above? With the greatest respect, he is only empowered to a certain extent. In the first place, the CCT is an inferior court. It is not a superior record as envisaged in section 6 (3) and (5)(a)-(i) of the 1999 Constitution of Nigeria (as amended). The CCT is not included in sub-section 5 (a)-(i) of same constitution as one of the superior courts of records in Nigeria. Inferior courts lack the jurisdiction to convict for contempt. Therefore the CCT cannot convict for contempt. But even if it can, it can only convict contempt that is committed in facie curiae (in the face of the court). Contrary to Umar’s threat, the CCT cannot convict for contempt committed ex-facie curiae (outside the court room). In Chief Dibia v. Chief Ezigwe (1998)9 NWLR (Pt.564) 78 the court held that contempt committed ex facie curiae should be tried by another judge to avoid the presiding judge becoming a judge in his own cause.

More importantly it is not every newspaper publication that is contemptuous of the court. A publisher cannot be punished for contempt unless the publication truly and really constitutes a clear and present danger to the administration of justice. In Daniel V Federal Republic of Nigeria (2013) LEPLR 22148 (CA) the court held that a publication is incapable of interfering with the administration of justice unless it is directly willed and directly calculated to impede the administration of justice by swaying the public opinion in a manner that is adverse to the justice system. In Akinrinsola V. A.G. Anambra State (1980) 2NLR 17, the court held“that a publication of a general comment on a matter, which is related to a court proceeding presided over by a judge and without any specific reference to the court trial, cannot be held to be contemptuous of the court”. In Sunday Okoduwa & 6 Others v The State (1986) 2 NWLR (Pt 76) 333 at 335 ratio 1.7, Nnamani, J.S.C., (of blessed memory) stated as follows: “It is not a contempt of court to criticize the conduct of a Judge or the conduct of a court even if such criticism is strongly worded provided that the criticism is fair, temperate and made in good faith.”

In sum, judges and chairmen of tribunals must be respected and honoured by journalists and all. However unguarded balderdash and flippant conducts of a judge or a tribunal chair in an open court or tribunal are capable of whittling down the respect and honour due to a judge or a tribunal chair. After all respect is earned not commanded or decreed. Certainly a judge or a tribunal chair who relishes in abusing others cannot earn any respect. Respect is reciprocal. Respect begets respect. Honour begets honour.