A detailed study of criminal prosecutions in Nigeria since the country’s return to democratic rule in 1999 reveals the dramatic roles played by the media in case after case. I describe the role of the media as dramatic because, in many cases, the outcome of an investigation and prosecution of a criminal case are determined by the media before the judge is to give judgment. In such a situation, where the media have consistently been a major determinant of cases, any serious study of the Nigerian criminal justice system requires a close assessment of the role of the media.
For clarity, one must start by examining the ideal role of the media in relation to administration of justice and human rights. The media play a very important role in reporting the activities of law enforcement agencies in the fight against crime and in their observance of due process and fair hearing standards set by the Constitution and laws of the country. The media bring transparency and accountability in the administration of criminal justice. This is because the media have the power to shape and influence public opinion about an issue, as well as the opinion of judicial officers, court officials, law enforcement agencies and witnesses in a case.
In view of this enormous responsibility, the media should report cases or disseminate information objectively, fairly and accurately. In reporting a case, the focus should be on putting the facts out as accurately as possible and to suppress the reporter’s opinions and judgments on those facts. Where a person is accused of violating the criminal law, the actual violation of the law should be reported and quoting the laws violated makes is more objective and credible. If any evidence of the crime is known, it should be identified objectively without conjecture or speculation. A mere statement by the law enforcement agency that evidence exists should be reported as such, as a mere statement, rather than as verified fact. The media should limit their report to actual events that occurred, and not focus on the political values or associations of the suspect or accused. Moral or ethical issues that may be associated with the facts of a crime must come last, where necessary for the report.
Of the various roles the media play in relation to criminal justice, the most important seems to be to report on any violations of the right of the accused person. A person standing a criminal investigation or trial is pitted against the awesome power of the state with its enormous financial resources and its extensive coercive powers. Such individual is vulnerable, and facing jeopardy places many of his rights, particularly the right to liberty, at stake. The media should pay attention to whether the accused person has been availed of all his constitutional rights to fair hearing and due process. And any infraction of fair hearing or due process standards must be treated as a matter of grave concern. That is the only way to hold the stronger party (the government) accountable to law.
Observing the fair hearing standards is the key objective of the independent and transparent media. In Nigerian parlance, fair hearing standards for an accused person are detailed out and itemised in Section 36 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (as Amended). The standard includes ensuring that the accused person shall stand trial before an independent and impartial judge, that he shall be represented by a lawyer of his choice, that he shall have adequate opportunity to prepare for his defense, that he shall be presumed innocent until the independent and impartial judge determines otherwise, etc.
To discharge their duties well, the media must possess four qualities, must be independent, must be devoted, must be disciplined, and must be dedicated.
Having stated what should obtain, we may now examine what has been the performance of the Nigerian media over the past 20 years. Overwhelmingly, evidence shows that the Nigerian media have operated at a significant departure from the ideals espoused above. Nigerian law enforcement agencies have various media houses under their payrolls. A paid media house lacks independence and professionalism needed for fair, objective and accurate reporting of cases. Such media will simply parrot any narrative handed to them by the law enforcement agency or the prosecutor or any powerful litigants. They suppress any counter-factual theories or exculpatory evidence, while trumpeting the government version of events. They ignore and suppress evidence of corruption on the part of law enforcement. And they ignore even blatant violations of due process rights of the accused.
Indeed, there have been many cases in which the media were used by law enforcement agencies to violate the rights of the accused. We see that often in the parading of suspects before the media. Based on a deal with the law enforcement agencies, the journalists will fail to ask the accused person how long he has been in police custody, or whether he has had access to a lawyer before making a confessional statement, or, where there is clear evidence of torture injuries, when and how he sustained such injuries. And even though the journalist knows that a suspect arrested should be taken to court within 24 hours, the journalist will deliberately avoid asking the law enforcement officers why a suspect who has been in their custody for two months has not been taken to court or for their plans to take such suspect to court. Indeed, it is fair to say that the media have been used to cover up and whitewash atrocities.
Another form of abusive use of the media by law enforcement agencies is in the deliberate effort to smear an accused person and damage his reputation so badly that it becomes difficult for bail sureties and witnesses to come forward for him. Indeed, the use of media to damage a suspect is often to the point of either poisoning the minds of the judges or making it unsafe for the judge to acquit a person where there is otherwise not sufficient evidence to convict him.
Finally, the Nigerian media have been used by either the law enforcement agencies or powerful litigants to put pressure on a judge and likely influence the outcome of cases in court. It goes without saying that the media have major roles to play in administration of criminal justice in Nigeria. And they should live up to the expectations of society in this regard.