Judge jails defense lawyer in libel case, detains reporter

A judge presiding over a libel case in Uyo, capital of Akwa Ibom State has jailed for one month the lawyer representing the defendant and detained a journalist covering the proceedings.

On July 27, 2022, Justice Ekaete Obot ordered the jailing for one month of Inibehe Effiong, the defense lawyer in the case of libel brought by Akwa Ibom State governor Udom Emmanuel. The Governor filed the suit after Leo Ekpenyong, who is also a lawyer, alleged that he bought an election dispute judgement from the National Assembly Election Tribunal.

Defense counsel Effiong had angered the Justice Obot by raising objection to her expulsion of Saviour Imukudo, a reporter from THE PREMIUM TIMES and the deployment of heavily-armed police men in the courtroom.

The journalist was detained for about five hours, first, in an office within the judiciary complex before being transferred to a nearby police station, where he was made to write a statement. His phone was seized and the recordings deleted before the gadget was returned to him upon his release.

“The Chief Judge of Akwa Ibom ordered a Premium Times reporter to leave the court. I said my lord, we were thinking that since the proceeding is public, that members of the public should be allowed to observe the proceeding,” The lawyer tweeted.

Effiong then applied to the Court to send out the security officers saying he felt extremely unsafe and uncomfortable.

“The moment My Lord entered the Courtroom, His Lordship ordered the orderly attached to the court to go out and bring the armed policemen inside the courtroom. I started feeling that there was going to be trouble. After the Premium Times reporter was sent out, I raised the issue,” Effiong added in his Tweet.

In committing Effiong to prison, Justice Obot said she hoped that the lawyer would use the correctional facility to purge himself of insolence and dishonorable acts.

Relations between the defense lawyer and Justice Obot, who is also the Chief justice of the state, have been frosty, ever since the latter managed to get the court to set aside the judge’s earlier judgement awarding damages of 1.5 billion Naira (about 3 million dollars) to the plaintiff. Arguing that his client was not given a fair hearing, the Effiong got the decision quashed. The lawyer has since repeatedly contended that the judge is liable to be biased and has even filed a motion asking her to recuse herself from the case.

Judge Obot’s spat with Effiong is the third in the course of her handling of the case. In a previous incident, she lashed out at the lawyer “You’re not on Channels TV. Don’t stand before me and talk nonsense,” she roared in a reprimand that raised a storm about her professionalism.

During another session on July 1, 2022, the judge at some point, shouted at the lawyer, “Please shut up! Who do you think you’re talking to?”

Meanwhile, the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) has condemned the jailing of Inibehe Effiong and vowed to get the lawyer released “shortly.”

 “While not going into the merits of this particular matter yet, suffice it to say that the NBA is strongly opposed to, and will continue to resist all attempts to intimidate, threaten or harass our members while properly carrying out their professional responsibilities,” reads a statement released on July 28, and signed by the chairman of the Uyo Branch of the NBA Olumide Akpata.

The Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) finds the jailing of lawyer Effiong quite disturbing, especially because he was defending another person’s right to freedom of expression and a journalist’s right to report on court proceedings unhindered. We condemn the apparently vindictive imprisonment of Effiomg and call on the authorities in Nigeria to ensure the immediate release of the lawyer as well as the transfer of the case to another judge.

Meanwhile, the judge has explained to an Assistant Managing Editor of THE PREMIUM TIMES, Cletus Ukpong, that she ordered the expulsion of Saviour Imukudo because the reporter was recording the court proceedings without her permission.

Justice Obot in previous proceedings had ordered court officials to temporarily seize phones from reporters in the middle of proceedings to prevent any recordings.

“Protocols for covering court proceedings must be spelt out clearly by the presiding judge or authorised court officials at the onset. Without any such prior notice, it should be assumed that journalists can record court proceedings, as they are public events. We therefore, deplore the detention and harassment of journalist Imukudo and urge the court authorities to ensure such arbitrary exercise of judicial power to undermine press freedom and the right to information is not repeated,” said Muheeb Saeed, head of Press Freedom at the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA).

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