The Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, Walter Onnoghen, has warned against the discussion in the media of matters pending before courts.
In a New Year message to journalists on Wednesday signed by Mr. Onnoghen's assistant on media, Awassam Bassey, the CJN cited judicial expressions forbidding the practice of discussing pending cases in the media.
According to the statement, Mr. Onnoghen said lawyers have often taken advantage of such public discussions to channel the minds of the people towards certain outcomes for court cases.
"The attention of the Honourable, the Chief Justice of Nigeria ... Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen, GCON, has been drawn to the emerging and continued practice of discussions of matters that are subjudice in the print and electronic media, such as the issues concerning the Anambra State Central Senatorial District dispute.
"The Hon. CJN wishes to remind the general public that it is Contempt of Court for anyone to discuss any matter pending in any Court of Law in the country. The punishment for Contempt may include a term of imprisonment," the statement said.
Citing previous decisions of courts, the statement said the courts of law had prohibited the discussion of pending criminal cases. It added that the declarations still stand.
"In respect of criminal proceedings, it is forbidden for parties, their counsel or newspaper commentators to freely offer opinions in respect of matters pending in court, including any situation where a conviction has been entered but the convict's appeal is pending at the appellate court."
'We must not allow "trial by newspaper" or "trial by television or trial by any medium other than the courts of law.'
"I think that anything in the nature of prejudgment of a case or of specific issues in it is objectionable not only because of its possible effect on that particular case but also because of its side effects which may be far reaching.
"Responsible 'mass media' will do their best to be fair, but there will also be ill-informed, slapdash or prejudiced attempts to influence the public.
"If people are led to think that it is easy to find the truth, disrespect for the processes of the law could follow and, if mass media are allowed to judge, unpopular people and unpopular causes will fare very badly.
"Most cases of prejudging of issues fall within the existing authorities on contempt. I do not think that the freedom of the press would suffer, and I think that the law would be clearer and easier to apply in practice if it is made a general rule that it is not permissible to prejudge issues in pending cases."
The statement further said the abusive tone adopted by other lawyers for judges and opponents of cases makes it necessary to stop the practice.
"To make matters worse, in such discourse, the language being used in describing the judgments of the Courts is not only ungentlemanly, degrading and contemptuous, but amounts to uncharitable insults which should not be encouraged in any decent democracy.
"It is in the light of the above that the Hon. CJN continues to encourage parties and the general public to use only lawful means in the pursuit of remedies for their real and imagined grievances.
"The Hon. CJN reiterates his appeal to litigants, advocates and the public to refrain from making unsubstantiated and malicious allegations and complaints against Judicial Officers, and reminds Judges to consider invoking their inherent power of contempt where there are clear violations or infractions in respect of matters that are subjudice", the statement added.
According to the statement, the CJN assured Nigerians of the commitment of the judiciary to "the discharge of its responsibilities in line with the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria without fear or favour; affection or ill-will".