The Chidinma – Ataga Case and the Influence of Media Trial on Criminal Justice

The ongoing case of Chidinma Adaora Ojukwu, a 300 level Mass Communications student of the University Lagos who allegedly killed her lover, Mr Michael Usifo Ataga, Super TV CEO recently in Lagos has continued to generate concerns on the likelihood of media trial influencing criminal justice in the long run.

Paraded before the media by Lagos State Commissioner of Police, Hakeem Odumosu, the suspect, Chidinma claimed she stabbed the man under the influence of drug and alcohol.

According to the Lagos Commissioner of Police, the lady conspired with others, now at large to kill Ataga by stabbing him severally with a kitchen knife at a short service apartment in Lagos.

Odumosu also revealed that the suspect was caught with the blood-soaked cloth she wore on the day of the incident and she confessed to stabbing the deceased with a kitchen knife after a struggle.

Some of the items the police claimed they  found on the lady suspect include one fake driver’s licence bearing Mary Johnson, complimentary cards, Access Bank statement of account, one recent Nigerian passport, the suspect’s photograph, one National Identification Card, one UBA ATM debit card and University of Lagos identity card.

Despite the right to freedom of expression and communication, as enshrined in section 39 of the 1999 constitution (as amended), there is a need to balance the scenario with the right of a suspect/defendant to a fair trial, particularly regarding pre-trial publicity, otherwise known as PTP.

As M. Hermida, a British Judge once declared that with PTP, “there is a possibility jurors have been exposed to prejudicial information which would be taken into account in determining a defendant’s guilt. This would render a trial unfair. When the media disrupt a criminal trial in this way, they pervert the judicial process and threaten the administration of justice.”

This kind of scenario that played out in the Chindinma Vs Ataga matter, where police investigators will allow the press unfettered access to the suspect in custody to be interviewed, and comments that could affect the final judicial outcome made, is what some experts in jurisprudence frown at.

A similar scenario played out after the arrest of popular kidnapper “Evans” some years ago. To date, the case has not made any appreciable progress despite all the sensational pre-trial publicity and interviews it attracted.

Read Also: The Attraction for Bad News: Growing Trend in the Nigerian Media

Trial by tabloids, or more generally trial by the media, refers to when media outlets create a widespread perception of an individual’s guilt of a criminal offence based on initial reports gathered and through the release of other prejudicial material. In instances of trial by media, due process gives way to moral speculation and, regardless of the outcome of the court of law, a verdict is already delivered in the ‘court of public opinion’ to the detriment of the suspects involved. 

This leads to conflict between the media’s prerogative to report on judicial processes via their right to freedom of expression, and the right of the accused to a fair trial from an impartial jury. These rights collide when pre-trial publicity infringes upon the right to a fair trial.

For justice to be administered correctly, guilt or innocence must be determined mainly in the courtroom, where the full facts can be considered, not through media outlets where selective elements are reported most times for the purposes of sensationalism.

 However, with pre-trial publicity, there is the possibility that jurors and the judges have been exposed to prejudicial information that will be taken into account in determining a defendant’s guilt. This could render a trial unfair. When the media disrupt a criminal trial in this way, they pervert the judicial process and threaten the administration of justice.

In our current society which is clearly experiencing a media overload, easy  accessibility to the internet and 24-hour news broadcast channels greatly accentuate the prospect for prejudicial pre-trial publicity to make maximum impact. Newspapers, in the face of intense competition from the online media, may feel greatly pressured to cover major crimes and push the envelope further with the content they publish.

Therefore, it is now virtually impossible for potential jurors to be unaware of the circumstances surrounding major crimes. These highly publicised cases tend to create an atmosphere that is extremely anti-defendant, and so it has been claimed that “never before has the judicial system been challenged with such an obstacle to fairness as that caused by today’s excessive reporting for entertainment and commercialisation, rather than education.”

 The main impediment that arises as a result of such sensationalism in the coverage of crime is the rise in the number of appeals. We have seen in modern times an exponential increase in appeals on the grounds that defendants cannot obtain fair trials. We have equally seen a rise in the number of overturned convictions.

 If otherwise proper convictions are continually reversed solely due to violations of the right to a fair trial by the media, the public’s interest in convicting criminals may diminish. Should the media’s freedom of expression be regulated in favour of the proper administration of justice?

Findings show that, though courts around the world have been reluctant to find pre-trial publicity prejudicial enough to render a trial unfair, they are willing to do so in extreme cases. For example, in The UK, in the Taylor vs Taylor case, it was confirmed that if media coverage creates a substantial risk of prejudice, the convictions would be quashed.

The British Court of Appeal had described the publicity surrounding the case as “unremitting, extensive, sensational, inaccurate and misleading”.

 The Court concluded it was “impossible to say that the jury was not influenced in their decision by what they read in the press”, and was therefore satisfied that the conviction was unsafe. Their lawyer believed that a jury would have been unable to ignore the “unremitting, collective pressure from the media.”The sensationalism that frequents today’s media has severely threatened the judicial system’s ultimate goal of justice by jeopardising the notion of a fair trial.  
To allow for the proper administration of justice, the democratic ideals of the right to a fair trial and the freedom of the press must be balanced. It is arguable that a defendant’s life is too valuable to be compromised by the media’s commercial desires to raise readerships and make a profit.

 If investigations in  Chidinma’s case would not be bungled at this stage, the police should not allow the media further access to the suspects in custody as well as the crime scenes.

However, a delicate balance is needed as the right of the media must be upheld since responsible media coverage of criminal trials serves an important function in informing and educating the public on complicated judicial procedures. In this way, the media facilitates justice in allowing greater transparency in the judicial process, thereby enabling open justice.

Categories: Nation