Nigeria: Guilty Until Proven Innocent

12 December 2018

Finally people are taking note of the degeneracy that has characterized Naija beat reporting for decades. A young reporter is detailed to cover a beat, he does nothing to be an authority on that beat as happens in established newsrooms; instead he starts to feel like a member of the house. Its been happening for as long as agencies of government have spoon-fed reporters and spoilt them so rotten they no longer see the bounds of their authority (if they have one) or the codes of their profession. When officials of Naija's Directorate of Security Services, DSS called a press conference to unveil their latest victim, a woman accused of impersonating the president's wife for pecuniary gains, reporters not only harangued her, they even verbally and physically assaulted her.

They over-zealously and unconscionably went over and beyond legal and professional ethics to forcibly remove the veil the woman legitimately put over her visage to hide her identity. I use the word legitimately because until that woman stands in the dock and is pronounced guilty by a competent court of law, she'll be addressed as a suspect. In law, she is innocent until a judge pronounces her guilty. In the intervening period, she is human with rights and dignity. The DSS knows that, but they must circumvent the law by impugning her character even before the outcome of proper investigations. All over the world, spy agencies do not get involved in cases meant for local police. But our spies do, sometimes for political gains.

The beat reporters filmed shouting at this suspect probably have no idea how many cases the DSS has successfully prosecuted this year or the year before or how many of their cases have been overturned in a court of law. They need the DSS to give them. If its any consolation, it wouldn't have matterered if the suspect in question is one of their colleagues. In today's journalism, dogs eat dog. Here is an agency that wilfully and periodically attacks media organizations for not towing government line. One that would not pick editors calls to clarify issues of importance when required. This organization wilfully detained Jones Abiri in its gulag for two years without trial. It kept Mohammed Adamu and others for several months under Abacha. It would default on court orders.

The conduct of our colleagues have led to outrage by senior colleagues but it is obviously not new except that here is a very assertive suspect who would not keep quiet. This shameful conduct happens all the time. The police is a willing culprit. They'll parade suspects before they had evidence to stand in a court of law and co-opt reporters into the probe sometimes with rehearsed questions. The EFCC has adopted it as a modus operandi and the Customs keys into the act.

When reporters become accomplishes in the abuse of suspects, the conscience of society becomes accomplishes in the denigration of humaneness and trampling on the law.

True journalists are not spoon-fed by beat managers. A reporter's job begins with the press statement or conference, it does not end there - they probe deeper. Government cannot and should not be relied on to be truthful. A reporter's job is to shift through the grains of officialese to get to the truth.

When reporters have access to suspects, an interview must be carried out with professionalism and decorum and with the full consent or cooperation of the suspect. No good reporter arrogates to himself or herself the right to take over the underhand modus operandi of overzealous interrogators. Nor should they assume that a suspect is guilty before charge. The shameful underhand questioning of suspect Aisha underscores a malingering tumour in journalism that needs to be addressed with good retraining emphasizing on the profession's code of conduct and ethics vis-à-vis the requirements of the law.

It is the duty and responsibility of media owners to expose their hires to global best practices and to explore the role of journalism in the respect of human rights and the preservation of human dignity. In the pseudo-democratic environment in which we practice in Africa, journalists must remember that the shoe could be on their own feet. If the golden rule is a principle of universal human-to-human application, it should be the unwritten code of journalistic practice.

In a world where hacks are threatening the integrity of the news gathering process, the professional journalist must demonstrate his professionalism at all times. If a suspect is being harassed in the full glare of cameras and microphones, what happens when there are no witnesses? In civilized climes, Aisha's case would be thrown out of the courts if the jury watches the humiliation and inhumane treatment the media has subjected her. In our laws, a suspect remains innocent, no matter the amount of evidence against him or her. Only a court has the final say.

What happened to Aisha should never happen to anyone no matter what accusations they are facing. It is an open secret that suspects are frequently subjected to all forms of torture, abuse and inhumane treatment to extract confession - reporters must never be in cahoots with that process. The responsibility of journalism is to establish facts and ensure that every fact unearthed confirms to the principles of civilized conduct.

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