The freedoms that we enjoy today are not a luxury; they are a necessary ingredient for civilised co-existence. The people have the right to information and those that provide this information deserve to be protected. There can be no democracy without a free press.
A lot has happened in the recent months, concerning the Judiciary, but our hands have been tied. We deliberately opted to stay away from the debates and observe where it was all going to end. Unfortunately, we can’t stay quiet no more because what has happened to one journalist today will happen to us tomorrow.
The jailing of Derrick Sinjela, the Rainbow Newspaper Editor-in-Chief, is a sad development for, not only the media fraternity, but the country as a whole. The processes that has resulted in the incarceration of this journalist is one that has to be discussed and examined very carefully. Our say on this issue has nothing to do with the judgment in the Savenda Vs Stanbic case, nor particulars in the contempt case involving our fellow scribes. What we would like to comment on is the route that a selected group of judges has taken in trying to demand respect for the Judiciary from members of the public.
We are afraid, and it appears to us that, the judges who felt personally insulted by Editor Sinjela appear to have used their powerful positions in the Judiciary to punish an individual for offending them.
We are not lawyers, but surely there is something very troubling about this issue. One of the principles we know that govern the way courts operate is that no one should be a judge in his or her own case. If you are the aggrieved person, there is no way you can be expected to be fair when judging your aggressor.
Anyone who observed proceedings that resulted in the imprisonment of Editor Sinjela will have to agree that the judges were very angry. They seemed to have taken personal offence, maybe rightly so, against the accused. But the trouble is that it became obvious that they were going to use the stick in their hands to teach someone a lesson.
Well, clearly, they have taught Editor Sinjela a lesson. But one has to wonder how helpful this is to increasing respect for our courts. Yes, people may fear, but that is not the same thing as respect. Fear may be used to subdue people’s behaviour, but it cannot change perception; if anything, it only adds to the mistrust.
This is what the courts should be concerned about. It is not whether or not people fear the courts or judges; it is whether they respect the courts and what they do. How this will be achieved is to ensure that our people view the work of the Judiciary as work in their interest.
If the judges conduct themselves in such a way that the public believe them to be acting in the best interest of the nation, the courts will not have to imprison anyone. It is the public that is going to protect the Judiciary. The public will not accept the unfair criticism of the Judiciary because they will view such criticism as an attack on their interest.
Comparing the courts to parents is not the best way to illustrate the point, but it might well be helpful. If children start insulting a parent, a wise parent will not rush to whip the child without first interrogating what is going on. Could it be that the parent has, over time, failed to conduct himself or herself in a manner that should engender respect from a child? Why would a child insult a parent who treats them well and provide for them? The point is: why would citizens insult judges, or lose respect for the Judiciary if it is serving them well? Where is the problem?
Sending Mr Sinjela to prison will not change the perception that there is something very rotten about our judicial system. Something needs to be done to restore the respect and confidence of the public in our Judiciary. The judges need to look at themselves and be very honest. Have they conducted themselves, generally, in a manner that would command respect from the public? Are they carrying out their duties with dignity and the independence that would inspire public confidence? How are they relating to the powers that be? When there are suspicions of corruption, how are they being dealt with by the Judiciary itself?
These are the questions that our colleague Editor Sinjela was trying to ask, in his own words. These are legitimate questions that have to be faced. There are no two ways about it. Making an example of Editor Sinjela will not do anything, to help our Judiciary become a better tool for fighting injustice.
Our judges must fight to restore the lost public confidence by changing their moral conduct, showing their teeth to corruption and resisting interference from the Executive; rather than targeting critics. That journalist they have jailed 18 months won’t change what citizens think about the conduct of some judges.
Maybe our judges don’t know how it pains when you take a matter to court and you hear that it has been allocated to judge X or judge Y. Not only do you feel like withdrawing the case, but you also feel like crying from hopelessness. That is how bad it is with some judges, such loss of integrity can’t be regained through imprisoning contemnors like Editor Sinjela.
Anyway, we can only encourage Editor Sinjela to be strong and always remember that there is a Judge above all those judges who agreed to send him to prison. That Judge knows who is guilty and who is innocent; prisons have no permanent tenants, but they also don’t have permanent landlords.