This morning, a Magistrate may be the subject of discussion on some media platform. This Magistrate will receive a good measure of bashing for not allowing journalists enter the courtroom to cover proceedings in the fresh prosecution of persons charged with murder of late Abuakwa North MP J.B Danquah-Adu.
The media reports are that the Magistrate presiding over the indictment proceedings instructed police at the court to prevent reporters entry and also drive out those who were already seated in the court. No reason was given, and as expected, this action has received a lot of attention since Thursday.
Now let’s get to the education you probably didn’t get in journalism school or missed because you didn’t go to journalism school at all. The law is that, generally, court proceedings are and must be open to the public. But the public including the media does not have an unfettered right to court proceedings.
It is provided in article 125 of Ghana’s Constitution that though justice is administered by the judiciary, “[j]ustice emanates from the people” and that “[c]itizens may exercise POPULAR PARTICIPATION in the administration of justice through the institutions of public and customary tribunals and the jury and assessor systems.” Emphasis added. So, if justice emanates from the citizens and the citizens, in fact, must and do participate actively in being invited as assessors to assist a judge with their expertise or to constitute a jury who determine the fate of an accused person, why shouldn’t they have unhindered access to the courts and at all times?
Section 102 of the Courts Act is clear in requiring that “the proceedings of every court or tribunal including the announcement of the decision of the court or tribunal shall be held in public.” But the law-maker actually commences this provision by vesting discretion in the court to order otherwise “in the interest of public morality, public safety or public order.”
(a) in circumstances where publicity would PREJUDICE the interest of justice or any interlocutory proceedings; or (b) in the interest of defence, public safety, public morality, the welfare of persons under the age of majority or the protection of the private lives of persons concerned in the proceedings.” Emphasis added. Don’t tell me the reportage so far has not been prejudicial! But what happened to correction, reprimand or caution to offending media houses instead of simply driving them out of the court in the instant case if a warning will serve the purpose?
I wish the court had explained its decision to the journalists, owing to the public interest in the JB case, notwithstanding it was not bound. It may be bound to do so only to those directly affected by the case and their lawyers when it decides to conduct the proceedings in chambers. But it could have taken a cue from the requirement in civil proceedings (Order 1 Rule 3 of C.I 47) to “specify the reason in the Record Book” it decides to hear a matter in chambers.
These laws are good and should not be bastardised as we typically so often do. Family matters including divorce and custody of children must remain matters to be conducted in the privacy of the judge’s chambers and not in open court. Cases involving sensitive national security or with public safety and public order considerations must generally not be opened to publicity.
In Ghana the police unlawfully parade criminal suspects for media coverage and they and the offending participating media don’t get sued in the appropriate cases, so how would the media be expected to appreciate in the appropriate cases why it is courtroom sketches or artist’s impressions of accused persons rather than their real images that are published elsewhere during trials?
It is also not surprising some journalists don’t know they risk brief moments in lawful detention or even up to three years in jail for recording court proceedings or acting in ways in or within the court premises that disturbs or interferes with the proceedings.