Does Nigeria’s election tribunal ruling against live broadcast fall short of global best practices?

Does Nigeria's PEPT ruling against live streaming go against global best practices?

Nigeria’s Presidential Election Petitions Tribunal (PEPT) has denied an application for proceedings to be live-streamed because no law supported the proposal. According to Justice Haruna Tsammani-led panel, the idea was “novel but not supported by any law in the country for now.

Following the victory of Bola Ahmed Tinubu in the February polls, Atiku Abubakar (PDP) and Peter Obi (LP) – two major opponents – filed petitions challenging the victory and declaration of Tinubu as the winner. As Tinubu’s May 29 inauguration draws near, many citizens are eager to know the outcome of the case and ultimately – who the tribunal confirms as president. 

Although this ruling dampens the hopes of Nigerians that wanted to watch the Nigerian judiciary handle perhaps the biggest case in the history of the country, it’s worth examining the reasons for denying Atiku and Obi’s application, what difference it could make, and whether televising such a sensitive case is according to globally accepted standards. 

Why was live streaming denied? 

The presidential candidate of the People’s Democratic Party, Atiku Abubakar initially presented the petition for a live broadcast to the court. It was later supported by Peter Obi, the presidential candidate of the Labour Party whom many people believe won the contentious 2023 Presidential Election.

According to the legal teams of both Atiku and Obi, Nigerians deserved a live stream of the proceedings as they needed to witness the proceedings since the outcome will affect them. 

However, the three respondents in the case – the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Tinubu, and the All Progressives Party to which the president-elect belongs – also faulted the request, claiming a live broadcast could disrupt the peaceful atmosphere of the courtroom. 

The PEPT denied the petition to live stream the proceedings based on three reasons. First is that the request lacked merit. The second reason was that it did not in any way contribute to the petitioners’ endeavours. Finally and most importantly, it was not backed by any law. Justice Tsammani cited section 36 of the Nigerian Constitution which allows for free hearing but, in his words, “does not amount to conducting court sittings on television or in a stadium.

Of the three reasons which backed the PEC’s refusal to allow live streaming of the sessions, the absence of a regulatory framework stands out. Essentially, the panel couldn’t grant the application even if it wanted to.

Read also: Who has the best tech plans for Nigeria; Tinubu, Obi or Atiku?

What does the world think of live-streaming court cases? 

Choosing to allow citizens to watch the proceedings of a court case – no matter the severity – echoes transparency. It conveys a mindset that justice will be served appropriately, a belief many Nigerians have long abandoned due to the growing cases of questionable judgments. It has been said several times over that with this presidential election tribunal, the Nigerian judiciary is also on trial.

Besides, we live in the information age, and with contemporary technologies at our disposal, everyone including public institutions must adapt. According to findings from the Supreme Court Observer, some high courts in India, the UK Supreme Court, and even Kenya’s Supreme Court allow proceedings to be recorded live. Unlike the above, USA’s Supreme Court allows for only audio recordings and makes clips available at the end of the week. 

It’s easy to argue that a live stream is needless since journalists often attend court hearings as members of the press. However, the U.S. and other countries have laws supporting the broadcast of cases.

Beyond transparency, the Free Speech Center believes that it enables the judiciary to “educate the public and allow them to see how justice is (or perhaps is not) carried out.” It’s also believed that judges, jurors, and witnesses – aware that they’re being watched by millions of citizens – will be honest and study facts closely. This increases the chances of fair outcomes.

The above indicates that allowing millions of Nigerians to follow the sessions live would restore the image of democracy. Despite the claim that the 2023 general elections were the freest and most authentic of all time, reports of intimidation, vote buying, rigging, and other electoral offences still made the rounds. But most importantly, presidential election results weren’t uploaded in real-time into the IREV server as promised by the electoral umpire, INEC.

Should Nigeria’s judiciary worry about live-streaming cases? 

A famous legal maxim states that it is not enough for justice to be done, justice must also be seen to have been done. It was, perhaps, with belief in this maxim that many Nigerians have lent their voices to the call for proceedings of the presidential elections petitions tribunal to be broadcasted live.

Famous human rights lawyer Femi Falana is one of those Nigerians supporting this cause. He believes every citizen deserves to be a part of the election process which also comprises the petition phase which we are currently in. 

Joining the call for the live stream of the tribunal hearings is Cardinal John Onaiyekan –  an Archbishop Emeritus – who believes showing the court session in real-time will “help to calm nerves.” According to him, the electorate  – not the politicians or candidates – feel the pain of election malpractice. He adds “They tell me I cannot go to court because I did not contest the election. If we cannot go and make our case, at least, we should be able to see what is happening there.

Aside from notable Nigerians, thousands of others are also joining in the call for live broadcasting. Last week, over 8,000 Nigerians signed a petition calling for the PEPT to broadcast the case, claiming it would “ensure transparency and openness in the conduct of the tribunal.

live stream

Whether legal or not, it’s hard to dispute the fact about how live streaming the proceedings could revive interest in court cases. Perhaps it’s time Nigeria’s policymakers consider the potential of developing a regulatory framework for this. The framework should also make room for adequate funding to cover the live-streaming equipment costs outlined above. 

Perhaps Nigeria’s policymakers should consider the potential of developing a regulatory framework for this. Section 36 (subsection 3) of the constitution permits the proceedings of the tribunal to be held in public, but it doesn’t mention a live broadcast. In view of recent events, that subsection should be reviewed so citizens can view hearings live. 

 Live streaming court cases has pros and cons.  While transparency and a renewed sense of democracy count as benefits, it does raise concerns about the safety of witnesses and judges. It may also lead to sensationalism which prioritizes clout over accuracy.

Give live streaming a chance 

While the constitution currently doesn’t support the live broadcast of court cases, this could be an opportunity for lawmakers to actually earn their paychecks and introduce legislation with long-term benefits. Nigerians need to believe in their judiciary once again. Perhaps allowing the entire nation to see what happens during the tribunal is a great place to start. 

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