EFCC: Legal Implications of Media Trial – By Isiaka Wisdom

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On the 24th day of February, 2021 in response to a question on media trial during the National Assembly confirmation hearing,  Abdulrasheed Bawa cited Section 6(p) of the EFCC Act, 2004 in defence of  media trial. The section did not envisage and/or empowered the EFCC to carry-out media trial but to create awareness, as the section aptly reads: ‘…carrying out and sustaining rigorous public enlightenment campaign against economic and financial crimes within and outside Nigeria…’

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Clearly, this provision does not provide for the release of incomplete investigative reports to the public  as doing so denies  an accused person the fruit of justice when a not-guilty verdict is eventually returned by the courts.

Over the years, rather than develop a robust prosecutorial strategy that ensures evidence based conviction, tax payers continue to fund an anti-corruption agency that has shown a fixation on media trial, which increasingly interferes with cases.

There are concerns that prosecutors are now showing an insatiable taste for media trial and as a result interfering with court proceedings. This trend overlooks the vital difference between an accused person and a convict, disregarding the constitutionally guaranteed golden principles of ‘presumption of innocence until proven guilty’ enshrined in Section 36(5) of The 1999 Constitution and  ‘guilt beyond reasonable doubt’  provided in Section 135 of the Evidence Act, 2011.

In some instances, news of arrests dominates the contents of EFCC’s media bulletins, generating public debates especially in the social media. The framing of corruption allegations online occasionally sets the stage for media trials of accused persons, and questions the capacity of the EFCC in undertaking holistic investigations before going to court.

  This is contrary to the practice in other jurisdictions like the United State of America where the dignity of persons under investigation is protected. These concerns have also been centered on the fact that accused persons are eventually freed by the court due to a lack of adequate evidence and the heavy reliance on confessional statements that are usually challenged in court.

It could be said that media trial is in total violation of section 36(5) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria as amended, and Article 7 of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights (Ratification and Enforcement) Act (Cap A9) laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 2004.

Thus, the suspect who suffer media trial  has a right to sue EFCC for defamation of character and unlawful prosecution. This is on the basis that media trial grossly violates constitutionally-guaranteed fundamental rights of the suspects on the principle of fair trial (see Section 36 of the 1999 Constitution as Amended).

In the Vanguard Newspapers of 9th April, 2017, captioned: ‘BETWEEN MEDIA TRIAL AND COURT TRIAL JUSTICE’ Hon. Justice Gabriel Kolawole of the Federal High Court in Abuja was reported to have suspended hearing in the trial of a case involving a serving Army Colonel Nicholas Ashinze and four others as a result of a false media publication by the EFCC.

During the 2009 Annual NBA Conference in Lagos Chief (Mrs.) Farida Waziri in her remarks at the Lawyers In The Media (LIM) of NBA session with the theme: ‘Crusade Against Corruption and The Effect of Trial By Media’ noted the effects of media trial on the judicial process thus: “The judiciary is referred to as the last hope of the common man. It is the bastion or citadel of justice; it rests and carries out its functions on the pillars of the rule of law, and public confidence.

Anything that undermines public confidence in the judiciary is inimical to the judicial process. The media should be wary of this. Trials by the media of criminal matters, prejudices the minds of the populace and make them hold the court in contempt and dishonored where it ultimately reaches a conflicting or different verdict…”.

By the time many of those paraded are eventually cleared by the court, they return to the society and find it difficult to fit in due to the stigma attached to their perceived guilt. It is, therefore, instructive that the EFCC activate mechanisms to ensure that constitutionality prevails in the handling of corruption cases. It has become a threat to the integrity of the Commission as the noise of media trial supersedes the rate of convictions.

A case in point is that of Chief Raymond Dokpesi who the Supreme Court gave a verdict of “No case submission” and dismissed the 2.1bn charges against him after the EFCC had damaged his reputation in the media. Several persons have been victims of this approach, including young Nigerians whose images are plastered all over social media on allegations that fail the test of evidence.

The EFCC must work closely with seasoned journalists and communication experts to train their investigators and prosecutors on Media Law particularly in the area of defamation and contempt of court. Prosecutors should abide by the code of conduct and the ethics of the legal profession and must avoid making utterances in the media that will be prejudicial. Investigators must not incite the public against the courts, the accused, and the defence.

*ISIAKA WISDOM  is an Abuja based legal practitioner.

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