‘Why judge’s barring of journalists in terrorism trials is unconstitutional’
By Bertram Onyebuchi
Recently, the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, John Tsoho, issued a new practice direction on terrorism trials. Under the new practice directive, judges may choose to bar journalists and the public from either covering or witnessing terrorism trials.
Although, the decision was primed to curb distractions, occasioned by the large representations and interests that accompanied such terrorism cases, there are views that the direction was principally targeted at the trial of Mazi Nnamdi Kanu, the leader of the proscribed Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB).
According to the proponent of the new practice direction, many cases have suffered several adjournments, because of the attention given to the attention given to terrorism matters.
But, leader of the defence counsel for the IPOB leader,Chief Mike Ozekhome (SAN), at the last trial date, indicated that the defense team will challenge the new direction. Chief Ozekhome sug gested that the direction was akin to secret trial and meetings of witches and wizards in their coven.
Another lawyer, Aloy Ejimakor, also condemned the new practice direction, stressing that such is unconstitutional by the clear provisions of Section 36 of the Constitution, which requires all trials to be in public.
He added that the new Practice Direction is ultra vires t Constitut and cannot be justified by a Terrorism Prevention Act that is unarguably subservient to the Constitution.
Ejimakor, in a statement, said subsection (3) of Section 36 of the Constitution, states that “The proceedings of a court or the proceedings of any tribunal relating to the matters mentioned in subsection (1) of this section (including the announcement of the decisions of the court or tribunal) shall be held in public.”
Quoting subsection (4) of Section 36 of the Constitution, he said “Whenever any person is charged with a criminal offence, he shall, unless the charge is withdrawn, be entitled to a fair hearing in public within a reasonable time by a court or tribunal.”
He noted that the only restrictions the Constitution allows is on a caseby-case basis and it must be narrowly-tailored by the particular court or tribunal before whom the suspect is being tried, not by an omnibus Practice Directions that seeks to envelope every case in one fell swoop, The Trumpet gathered.
He argued that narrowly-tailored exception can found at Section 36, subsection 4(a) of the Constitution, which states that a court or such a tribunal may exclude from its proceedings persons other than the parties thereto or their legal practitioners in the interest of defence, public safety, public order, public morality, the welfare of persons who have not attained the age of 18 years, the protection of the private lives of the parties or to such extent as it may consider necessary by reason of special circumstances in which publicity would be contrary to the interests of justice.
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“The second narrow exception is contained in Section 36(4)(b) of the Constitution, which states that if in any proceedings before a court or such a tribunal, a Minister of the Government of the Federation or a commissioner of the government of a State satisfies the court or tribunal that it would not be in the public interest for any matter to be publicly disclosed, the court or tribunal shall make arrangements for evidence relating to that matter to be heard in private and shall take such other action as may be necessary or expedient to prevent the disclosure of the matter,” he added.