The Lagos court initially obliged the judge but later rescinded its decision.
The Head of the Household of God Church International and former presidential candidate, Chris Okotie, was so uncomfortable with journalists reporting his involvement in a suit that he asked the judge to chase journalists away from the court room, PREMIUM TIMES can reveal.
The reverend stated this to a Lagos Magistrate Court Judge on Wednesday during a trial between him and a former member of his church.
Mr. Okotie is accusing Dafiaghor Okiotor, 40, a former keyboardist in the church, of blackmail and intimidation and trying to extort N39 million from him.
Mr. Okiotor, however, stated that the flamboyant head of the church owed him after he played the keyboard and produced music for the church for 14 years.
The accused had consistently debunked claims that he was a volunteer at the church, adding that he had a “private arrangement” with Mr. Okotie.
Okotie seeks journalists exit
As the trial continued on Wednesday, Mr. Okotie asked the magistrate to tell the reporters to “excuse’ them from the court.
“Your Honour, there are journalists in the court recording the proceedings. We would be obliged if they can be excused from the court,” said Kola Dopamu, who was holding brief for Mr. Okotie at the trial.
Robert Igbinedion, Mr. Okiotor’s counsel, demanded to know the reasons for asking the journalists to leave.
“What issue does it go to? You cannot eat your cake and have it. You were the ones who brought us to court. The court is a public place and setting where everybody, lawyers, journalists and even passersby come to unhindered as long as they don’t disrupt the proceedings,” Mr. Igbinedion said.
Oshodi Makanjuola, the magistrate, ignored the defence lawyer and told the journalists to “leave her court.”
“I know your people (journalists) are always around the court premises but why are you in this particular court proceeding?” Mrs. Makanjuola asked the journalists. “What is so special about this case that you want to cover the case? Please leave the court room.”
The magistrate also shouted at Mr. Igbinedion, who tried to oppose the order.
“Excuse me, I will not allow you to talk. I do not want journalists in my court. This is my court and I run it the way I so please. Who are you that journalists should be coming to cover your case? What nonsense!”
A shouting match
As the court orderly came forward to march the journalists out of the room, a shouting match ensued between the magistrate and the defence lawyer.
Court transcripts seen by PREMIUM TIMES detailed the heated verbal exchanges between the magistrate and the lawyer.
“Your Honour, you have no right to issue that order. The constitution is very clear about the freedom of the press and public hearing. By your action you have just trampled on the fundamental right of my client to a fair hearing,” Mr. Igbinedion said.
The magistrate fired back: “How dare you talk to me in that manner? So, it’s the journalists that would now ensure that his rights are protected?”
Mr. Igbinedion continued, “Your Honour, I’m sorry but you do not have the power to do that. You sit there operating with the powers that was given you by the constitution but you are trampling on the same constitution. Your action, if you insist, will rob I and my client of every confidence that we can get justice in this court. If you insist the journalists, who are the Fourth Estate of the realm, leave then I will have no choice but to leave also. You may as well pass your judgment without trial.”
As other lawyers in the court, visibly taken aback, tried to douse the tension in the room, a furious Mrs. Makanjuola insisted that the journalists would leave.
“How dare you talk to me like that? This is my court. Are you going to tell me how to run my court? Journalists please leave my court now,” Mrs. Makanjuola said.
At this point, the defence lawyer threatened to walk out with his client.
“Your Honour, my client is no longer assured of fair hearing. We do not have confidence in the court anymore. The court has ceased to be a public place. A place where everybody should have access especially members of the Fourth Estate of the realm,” said Mr. Igbinedion.
I can use my power anyhow
The argument and counter argument dragged on, the magistrate insisting that no law states that journalists must cover the proceedings of the court; the lawyer arguing that it was their fundamental right.
“I have the power to use my discretion to allow the journalists or not to allow the journalists. You have no right to tell me that journalists must be in my court,” the magistrate said.
Mr. Igbinedion started to flip the pages of the Nigerian Constitution, searching for the section that deals with the Freedom of the Press.
“Sorry, Your Honour, but your discretion cannot supersede the laws of the country… My client is facing a criminal charge brought against him by Mr. Chris Okotie who we all know is a billionaire. The constitution says that no part of the hearing can be conducted in secret. It must be open. If you will trample the constitution then we will lose confidence in the court.”
Mrs. Makanjuola asked the lawyer his reason for ‘bringing’ journalists to cover the court’s proceedings.
“Journalists often come to cover cases in court but why should they come for your matter? Who are you? I’m just wondering why you decided to bring a special journalist. What is so special about you and your case that journalists should come?” Mrs. Makanjuola asked.
Mr. Igbinedion responded that the matter is an oppression of the poor by the rich.
Okotie oppressed my client
“The constitution is here to protect everyone from oppression. Mr. Chris Okotie accused the defendant publicly. Now he wants the defendant to be tried secretly. My client has been maligned in the newspapers with headlines like: ‘Pianist assaults Reverend Chris Okotie;’ ‘Pianists attacks Chris Okotie while preaching;’ ‘Pianist disrupts Reverend Chris Okotie’s service;’ ‘Pianist threaten Reverend Chris Okotie.
“Google any of these headlines, you will find my client named as the anarchist. My client was in jail when these publications came out. My learned prosecutor granted an interview stating these to the press. Consequently, my client is finding it difficult to get jobs because no one is ready to give any job to a man who has been publicly portrayed to have assaulted his boss.
“When they were making all these allegations, the press was good and okay. Now we say give your evidence publicly, they now have a problem with the same press being around. We say no to that kind of oppression,” said Mr. Igbinedion.
The magistrate eventually asked the journalists to return, stating that she did not “have a personal interest in the matter.”
“So it’s the journalists that will ensure a fair hearing? Ok, call the journalists to come in since that is the way you think your client can have a fair hearing,” Mrs. Makanjuola said. “Let it not be [said] that I have any special interest in this matter,” she added.
Addressing the journalists, the magistrate urged them to be objective in their reporting of proceedings.
“I read Mass Communications before going to study Law. I hope you understand what I mean about being objective?” she said.