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04.12.2013 Feature Article

Social Media Versus Law: Another Battle

Social Media Versus Law: Another Battle
LISTEN DEC 4, 2013

In far away United Kingdom, a new frontier of battle has begun between users of the popular social media and the law enforcement authority following some new sets of guidelines on how not to make comments concerning ongoing court proceedings.


In Nigeria however, it is a different kettle of fish entirely because those clothed with the legal authority as law enforcement agents are the worst culprits of engaging in unwholesome practices in the media that undermine equitable dispensation of substantial justice.

On one hand, the British legal authority say those clear sets of advisory guidelines were issued to protect litigants from being denied substantial justice due to prejudices possibly conveyed in comments made in the social media by persons who may or may not be directly involved in the process. But members of the online community see these guidelines as another frontier of consistent pattern of attack against freedom of speech.

Dateline December 4th 2013: the popular British private television Skynews interviewed the United Kingdom's government's top legal adviser who affirmed that the new social media guidelines for users will help 'facilitate commentary in a lawful way'.

As stated earlier, the import of the new official British directive is that Facebook and Twitter users will be shown previously unpublished legal notes to stop them inadvertently breaking the law by commenting on court cases online.

Attorney General Dominic Grieve QC said the advisories, which have previously been issued only to print and broadcast media outlets on a "not for publication" basis, are designed to make sure that fair trials take place.

He said he had changed the policy to stop the public tripping over legal pitfalls by commenting on court cases in a potentially prejudicial manner.

"Blogs and social media sites like Twitter and Facebook mean that individuals can now reach thousands of people with a single tweet or post," he said.

"This is an exciting prospect, but it can pose certain challenges to the criminal justice system. In days gone by, it was only the mainstream media that had the opportunity to bring information relating to a court case to such a large group of people that it could put a court case at risk", he stated.

"That is no longer the case and is why I have decided to publish the advisories that I have previously only issued to the media. This is not about telling people what they can or cannot talk about on social media - quite the opposite in fact. It's designed to help facilitate commentary in a lawful way", he stressed.

"I hope that by making this information available to the public at large, we can help stop people from inadvertently breaking the law, and make sure that cases are tried on the evidence, not what people have found online", he said.

"This change also brings more openness to Government's dealings with the media so that both sides can be accountable to the public for what they do and say."

The advisories will be published on the Attorney General's Office (AGO) section of the gov.uk website and also through the AGO's twitter feed - @AGO--UK.

A leading British print media The Independent on Wednesday December 4th 2013 recalled that last month a man was given a suspended prison sentence for contempt after tweeting images purporting to be of Jamie Bulger's killer Jon Venables, who has been given a new identity by the state.

The same British newspaper also told the readers that this week Peaches Geldof, the daughter of the Band Aid founder Bob Geldof, apologized for tweeting the names of two mothers whose babies were abused by the Welsh rock singer Ian Watkins.

Incidentally, this is only the first time that the British government has decided to warn members of the public on the far reaching adverse consequences of committing contempt of court through their comments on the social media. Hitherto, for the last 32 years newspapers and broadcasters in Britain have received, on not-for- publication basis, notices warning them of the potential pitfalls they face in reporting sensitive court cases. The Independent reported that so far, ten of such notices have been issued in 2013, twice the number released in an average year.

Already users of the social media have dubbed the new government's approach in British society as a declaration of war and several negative reactions have flooded the various social media sites.

But legal experts say that impartiality and objectivity are essential elements of substantial justice even as they say whatever would lead to the negation of these core values of good justice must be curbed in the interest of social justice.

Nigeria's erstwhile Chief Justice is one of those who think that it is imperative to safeguard the principles of impartiality and objectivity in order to ensure equitable justice delivery mechanism in any civilized society.

In 2007, he wrote a scholarly piece titled “towards strengthening judicial integrity: the Nigerian experience,” whereby he took time to expouse on those critical points of law.

On judicial impartiality and objectivity, the former Nigeria's top judge stated thus; “impartiality is essential to the proper discharge of the judicial office. It applies not only to the decision itself but also to the process by which decisions are made. Judges must perform their judicial duties without favour, bias or prejudice and ensure that their conduct both in and out of court, maintains and enhances the confidence of the public, the legal profession and the litigants in the impartiality of the judicial system”,

Impartiality, in the considered opinion of Justice Musdapher, means that the judge treats parties before him/her equally and providing them with an equal opportunity to make their respective cases.

“Impartiality means that the judge has no personal interest in the outcome of the suit with impartiality, comes objectivity. It means making judicial decisions on the basis of considerations that are external to the judge and may even be at conflict with the personal views of the judge”, Justice Musdapher affirmed.

Chukwuma Machukwu-Ume, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria and Imo State Attorney General and commissioner for justice, is of the opinion that impartiality and objectivity are needed so as to guarantee substantial justice.

In a book he wrote on the person of the retired Chief Judge of Bayelsa State (K.D. Ungbuku) the new Imo state Justice commissioner had alluded to the above critical point of presence of impartiality and objectivity in arriving at substantial justice when he wrote thus; “one goal Hon. Justice Ungbuku pursued without reservation in his trials, orders rulings and judgments, was substantial justice. Not justice based on technicality or intellectuality, it was justice to whosoever it belonged, in the eyes of God and the law”.

Whereas the British legal authorities are busy designing, devising and implementing measures to enforce impartiality and objective in justice delivery, Nigeria sinks deeper into the abyss of wanton abuses of the rights of litigants not only in the social media but even from the operatives of the Nigerian Police Force who by the constitutional provisions ought to play the role of law enforcement. These abuses make an observer to wonder why Nigeria has not changed positively even when the nation got most of our common laws and the establishment of law enforcement agencies from the then British colonial masters.

The operatives of the Nigerian Police Force are not the only guilty party because even other law enforcement agents like those of the anti-graft bodies and other para-military entities do engage in the public parade of suspects and are in the habit of prejudicing these criminal matters that should have been adjudicated by the courts of law.

The illegality of parading crime suspects have got to an abysmal state so much so that even little children being breast- fed by female crime suspects are regularly paraded by the operative of the Nigerian police force.

What all the above institutional abuses mean is that Nigeria still has a very long way to go in order to restore sanity, impartiality and objectivity in the justice delivery mechanism in practice in all parts of Nigeria.

As Barack Obama stated that "change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we have been waiting for. We are the change that we seek," Nigerians generally must make rapid advances in areas of promotion and protection of the fundamental human rights of all citizens including those classified as being in conflict with the law.

While we watch the ongoing debate in the United Kingdom regarding the new sets of operational guidelines, it is imperative that the Nigerian legal authority begin comprehensive capacity building of law enforcement officers to comply with global best practices and stop indulging in media trials of suspects which in the long run prejudices the judicial decisions in those matters.

The Nigerian media landscape is also in need of sweeping reforms to enable reporters and essentially the line editors, respect the fundamental human rights of all crime suspects who are considered innocent in the eyes of the law unless and until a valid and competent judicial pronouncement is made to prove otherwise.

Nigerian legal authorities should also introduce binding guidelines to safeguard the principles of impartiality and objectivity in justice delivery. It is a fact that the online community in Nigeria is filled with hate messages and other adversarial comments that undermine equitable dispensation of substantial justice.

Emmanuel Onwubiko; Head; HUMAN RIGHTS WRITERS ASSOCIATION OF NIGERIA; blogs @www.huriwa.blogspot.com; www.huriwa.org.

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