The Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), Akwa Ibom State Council, said it is going to file a petition against Margaret Ekpedoho, a magistrate in Akwa Ibom sanitation court who threw a journalist into jail under controversial circumstances.
Mary Ekere, a female journalist who reports for a local newspaper in Uyo, was arrested by the state environmental task force on September 16 for taking photos of the task force officials raiding a shop.
She was thrown into the Uyo prison that same day without appearing before a judge, an incident lawyers who spoke with PREMIUM TIMES said was “strange” in the nation’s justice system.
Section 36 of the Nigerian Constitution guarantees citizens’ right to “fair hearing in public” in any criminal matter.
The journalist said she was beaten up and thrown inside a vehicle, alongside a young man who was also arrested by the task force officials.
“They drove off to the Environmental Court. By the time we got to the Environmental Court, the magistrate had left. This was around 4:00 p.m.
“They took me to their office. We spent a few minutes there and then drove again to the court to check if the magistrate had returned because they had put a call through to her.
“Upon getting there, the magistrate was not still there, so they had to drive out again. This time, straight to the prison and [they] dumped both of us there,” Ms Ekere said in a report published recently by the human rights organisation, Amnesty International.
The Amnesty report, titled ‘Endangered Voices: Attack on Freedom of Expression in Nigeria’, chronicles the attacks on the press in Nigeria since 2015.
Ms Ekere, on the invitation of Amnesty International, flew from Uyo to Abuja to take part in the launch of the report.
Apart from the “strange” circumstances in which she was thrown into jail, Ms Ekere was also forced by the magistrate to delete the photos of the task force officials she took with her mobile phone.
Ms Ekere’s travails featured prominently during the NUJ congress in the state on Friday.
“The Congress condemned in no uncertain terms the action of Margaret Ekpedoho, a Magistrate sitting at the Sanitation Court, Uyo, who struck out the suit against Comrade Mary Ekere, after the Akwa Ibom State Government withdrew the charges against the journalist, but asked that the case file be brought back to her and ordered Ekere to delete from her mobile phone, the pictures of officials of Akwa Ibom State Environmental Protection and Waste Management Agency, raiding a shop and manhandling traders in Uyo,” the journalists’ union said in a communiqué.
“Congress resolved to petition the Chief Judge of Akwa Ibom State, Justice Godwin Abraham over the conduct of the Magistrate,” the communiqué added.
Before Mrs Ekpedoho struck out the charges of assault and obstruction of duties against Ms Ekere, she lashed out at the journalist and questioned her rights to take photos of state officials carrying out “enforcement”.
“If we allow this to go on, it means someday a husband and his wife could be making love inside their bedroom, and a journalist would go in to film them,” she said.
She also commented on the outrage that followed Ms Ekere’s detention in the prison, saying she gave a satisfactory explanation on the matter when she was summoned by the state chief judge.
“I have read all kinds of reports on social media about this case, let me tell you I am not intimidated.
“I was in my house drinking juice, and reading what you people were writing on Facebook. Journalists, I hope you people are there? Go and report it, fire on!” the magistrate said inside the courtroom.
A human rights group, the Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO), Akwa Ibom State, had accused the magistrate, Mrs Ekpedoho, of giving an order via a telephone call for Ms Ekere to be thrown into jail, even when the journalist was not arraigned.
Mrs Ekpedoho, apparently reacting to the CLO’s claim, said the task force sometimes raid places in the night, and that she could come back at any time to sign a remand order. “I can sign a remand order at any time of the day, even if it is in the night,” she said in the courtroom.
PREMIUM TIMES sought the opinion of several lawyers on the possibility of having a Nigerian citizen thrown into jail without arraignment in court.
“That is very odd,” Attah Ochinke, a lawyer in Calabar, Cross River State, told PREMIUM TIMES. “The prison can only accept you on the order of the court.”
Mr Ochinke, a former attorney general of Cross River State, said such could only happen if “they were able to get a magistrate to sign a detention warrant without sitting”. But he said that too would be “indeed odd”.
Another lawyer, Chike Okoye, said Ms Ekere’s story is “most irregular”.
“Prison is a receptacle for persons who have been denied bail or persons who have been convicted or persons whose bail could not be perfected. There is no how you can send someone to prison custody without having arraigned that person. In fact, being in prison shows that there is a commencement of a criminal trial. And criminal trial commences from arraignment,” Mr Okoye said.
Publicity of trial is a constitutional right of every Nigerian citizen, said a Lagos-based human rights lawyer, Inibehe Effiong.
“You cannot hold trial or proceedings in private except under special circumstances…. Even if it is an ex-parte application, this application has to be moved in court.
“If it is actually true that a magistrate gave an order for someone to be remanded without the person being formally arraigned in court and the person being afforded an opportunity to take a plea, that is a serious infraction, that would be serious misconduct,” Mr Effiong said.
Richard Akinola, a journalist, told PREMIUM TIMES that the “mystery” around Ms Ekere’s story deserves some investigation.
“Perhaps, Uyo NBA may need to step in at this point to investigate what actually transpired because it is a very strange development,” Mr Akinnola said.
The task force that arrested the journalist has been suspended by the Akwa Ibom government.