THE Vice President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, SAN has made a case for the media to be allowed to cover virtual Court proceedings.
This was disclosed by the Vice President at a webinar alongside Chief Wole Olanipekun SAN, who was represented by his son, Bode Olanipekun SAN, former General Secretary of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Dele Adesina SAN, human rights lawyer Femi Falana SAN, Publisher, Anti-Corruption Journal, Mr Richard Akinnola,and former Chairman, National Human Rights Commission(NHRC), Prof Chidi Anselm Odinkalu.
Meanwhile, in his key note address, he lauded the decision of the Supreme Court of Nigeria on the constitutionality of virtual hearings.
“The Attorneys General of Lagos and Ekiti States deserve our commendation for bringing the matter before the Supreme Court. They asked the court to determine whether having regard to the constitutional requirement that court proceedings, save for some exceptions, must be held in public and whether court hearings by the use of technology, by remote hearings of any kind, whether Zoom or WhatsApp, Microsoft Teams, Skype or any other audio-visual or video-conference platform are constitutional;
“The Supreme Court while dismissing the suits themselves as premature and speculative nevertheless said that virtual proceedings were indeed Constitutional. This wise approach of the Court probably saved our system of justice another catastrophic round of technical decisions around the constitutionality of virtual proceeding
“It may also be cautiously taken as a signal that the Supreme Court expects the lower courts to go down this new path with as little attention to technicality as possible.
“So, we are at a point where at least we know that virtual hearings are legal. This means that the Supreme Court is satisfied that appropriate means can be found to ensure that hearings are public, and that the press and indeed members of the public can access the proceedings”. He said.
However, making out a case for journalists to cover court proceedings, he said:
“Reporting of court proceedings is a crucial exercise of the right to fair hearing, a cornerstone of which is that hearings must be held in public. How that right will be given full expression when court proceedings are within the encrypted confines of virtual platforms is really the subject of our conversion today”.
Besides, he stated that the traditional media and social media users are now to be governed by the same legal regime governing coverage of news, in so far as freedom of expression and the attendant restrictions thereon are concerned.
“I think we are at an interesting place because in the past it was always the traditional media that could be sanctioned for violations but now it seems that practically everyone on social media who chooses to publicize the proceedings of a court will be subject to the restrictions that the traditional media have always had”, he said.
However, the Vice President noted that “there are issues that we need to resolve. We need to resolve several issues of procedure and evidence, so that we are better able to navigate these proceedings in a manner that not only serves the ends of justice but also in some obedience to the law.
I think that an opportunity that this offers us is to get rid of this issue of technicality as much as possible.. It is really a breath of fresh air considering the ways that we tend to magnify the issue of technicality to the point where you wonder where justice is.
“I am hoping that the opportunity we have in virtual proceedings will also be an opportunity to discard several of the unnecessary technical rules that we have in our adjectival laws, laws of procedure, evidence and all that”.
In another wicket, Chief Wole, SAN stated that the media should have access to court processes. While alluding to a Court decision, where it was held that to “ensure that the evidence communicated to the court is communicated to the public, the media must be given access to the evidence, which the court itself has”.
“Our judicial system from the point of view of Supreme Court decisions absolutely abhors secrecy,” he said canvassing for media accessibility for purposes of transparency.
Meanwhile, Mr. Dele Adesina SAN charged that Court proceedings be reported live for the public to watch.
“We are all witnesses to the trial of the sportsman, O.J Simpson in the United States. Even in South Africa, court proceedings are televised live for every citizen to watch. This system will eliminate the issue of corruption in the justice system” he said.
Furthermore, Mr. Femi Falana, SAN noted thus:
“This July, I took part in virtual proceedings conducted by the ECOWAS Court in Abuja, specifically, in the case of a Justice of the Liberian Supreme Court Justice whose impeachment is being challenged at the Court by my law firm. During the hearing, the Court sat in Abuja and listened to my submissions which I made in Lagos, while the Attorney- General of Liberia addressed the Court in his own office in Monrovia and at the end of our submissions the Court adjourned the case for judgement.”
Meanwhile, Falana SAN urged that the Government adequately fund the Judiciary for effective service delivery.
Also, Prof. Odinkalu agreed with Falana, SAN but noted that there is a need for competent hands to be brought on board.
In addition, Mr. Mustapha Ogunsakin, the Publisher of Gavel International said that “we urge the Nigerian judiciary, both at the State and Federal levels, to embrace virtual court proceedings, and encourage journalists to have free access to these proceedings. We must bear in mind that an open trial is the greatest asset of an incorruptible judge, just as it is the worst nightmare of a corrupt judge”, he said.