Justice Gabriel Kolawole of the Federal High Court in Abuja has lifted the embargo placed on hearing of criminal cases brought before him by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) over false dissemination of court proceedings by the commission.
The judge who had refused to entertain cases from anti-graft agencies accepted the apologies tendered by EFCC for misleading the general public in the trial of a case involving a serving Army Colonel Nicholas Ashinze and four others.
The EFCC through its counsel Mr. Ufem Uket promised the judge that his client will learn its lesson and will no longer subject defendants in its cases to media trial any longer.
Before the apology was taken, EFCC had tendered newspaper publications where the offending EFCC press statements were refuted as directed by the court.
Also Vanguard Newspaper Editor and the Judiciary Reporter summoned in respect of the offending publication were let go following their defence that their report was based on a press statement issued by one Mr. Wilson Uwujare on behalf of EFCC.
Uwujare who is the head, media and publicity department in the EFCC had in a statement claimed that the serving colonel Ashinze had been indicted over a N36.8bn public fund diversion whereas, the defendant was charged with N1.5B public fund diversion.
The offending press release also referred to Ashinze as a Retired Colonel.
Following the acceptance of the apology, Justice Kolawole agreed to resume the trial of the case but warned the media and the EFCC to always report court proceedings accurately and to avoid unnecessary sensation in the interest of justice.
The Judge warned that extra caution must be observed by the media and EFCC so as not to pollute the mind of the general public on pending trials against the defendants.
Justice Kolawole had at the last adjourned date insisted that the trial of Colonel Nicholas Ashinze, a former aide to Colonel Sambo Dasuki and 7 others in alleged N1.5b fraud would not be resumed until the EFCC retracts fully the misrepresentation of the court’s proceedings that the defendants are being tried on N36.8b fraud.
The judge had dismissed the oral claim by the counsel to EFCC, Mr. Ofem Uket that the anti-graft agency had retracted the offending publication because the lawyer failed to produce any document or evidence before the court to ascertain its claim.
Justice Kolawole had on March 21, warned EFCC to stop media trial of Nigerians being put on prosecution for any offence and ordered that the alleged N36.8b fraud contained in the EFCC Press Statement issued by one Mr. Wilson Uwujare to media houses in the country be refuted to correct the court proceedings.
The Judge also ordered the news media involved in the alleged offending publication to appear before it and show cause why they should not be disciplined for misrepresenting the court’s proceedings by dishing out falsehood to the general public through the EFCC press statement.
When the matter was then to resume, counsel to EFCC informed Justice Kolawole that his client had already retracted the offending press statement as contained in some national dailies of April 12, 2017 but however failed to present a copy of the retraction to the court as demanded by the judge.
Justice Kolawole had disagreed with the oral evidence of the EFCC Counsel, lamenting that the counsel as a minister in the temple of justice has not shown any seriousness or do enough to protect the integrity of the judiciary from being unjustly rubbished.
The judge said that “No responsible judge will sit down and allow his court to be rubbished with falsehood as in the case of the EFCC that has been engaging in feeding the general public with falsehood
“It is a fact that the defendants in criminal matter will be prejudiced when they are unjustly subjected to media trial through publication of falsehood and misrepresentation of the court’s proceeding.
“Since the court cannot act in vain, it is hereby ordered that the EFCC must show compliance in the appropriate way with the retraction of the offending press statement it issued out in respect of the proceeding of this court.
“Let it be understood that the press as the fourth Estate of the realm has the responsibility of holding all arms of government accountable to general public but the press has no business in misrepresenting the court so that defendants in criminal matters would not be prejudiced and would not be found guilty though false media trial before the real court trial.”