A local journalist has taken the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) to task over its newly introduced Integrated Electronic Case Management System (IECMS), which is meant to allow for digital handling of court cases.
In a letter written by his lawyer Dr Innocent Maja of Maja and Associates Legal practitioners, and delivered to JSC on Monday 2 October 2023, Desmond Chingarande, a senior court reporter employed by Alpha Media Holdings, which publishes several newspapers and also runs a multi-media organisation, outlined that since the introduction of the IECMS platform, journalists have been experiencing challenges in retrieving information pertaining to criminal and civil litigation court documents as the digital system only limits access to the parties to the dispute and court officials only.
In September, JSC advised its stakeholders that all litigation in superior courts will now be done on the IECMS platform and to use this, litigants or users needed gadgets such as laptops, computers, tablets smartphones, adequate and stable internet connectivity and need to be registered on the IECMS platform and to be trained on how to use the IECMS.
Previously, Chingarande said, this used to be possible because journalists would just sit in open court and follow proceedings. But now, accredited journalists are not allowed access to the IECMS system and are also not allowed access to virtual hearings and or trials so that they follow proceedings in order to cover and report about them.
The court reporter argued that in terms of section 69(1) and (2) of the Constitution, every person has the right to a fair, public hearing and trial and a corollary of the right to a public hearing and trial is the ability of the media to cover the proceedings and have access o court documents.
Court hearings, documents and proceedings, Chingarande said, are public unless there are cogent reasons for restricting publicity and public access.
The AMH journalist said as currently set up and operating, the IECMS platform has altered this position and has made it the general rule that the public and the media’s access to court proceedings are restricted unless as stated in Rule 56A(2) of the Amended High Court Rules, which makes publicity of court proceedings held under the IECMS platform to be an exception granted at the discretion of the Judge on the ground of public interest.
This, Chingarande said, is contrary to the provisions of the Constitution, which provides for public trials and hearings as a general rule.
Chingarande charged that his right of access to information enshrined in section 62 of the Constitution, has been violated by the lack of access to information on the IECMS platform so as to cover and report on court proceedings and court documents.
He argued that the lack of access to information pertaining to ongoing court proceedings and documents by dint of the IECMS platform does not
constitute a fair limitation of his right to access to information and is not reasonably justifiable in a democratic society based on openness and justice.
Chingarande argued that he has journalistic privilege to enquire, gather, receive and disseminate information and that his right to carry on and practice his profession as a court journalist, which is guaranteed in section 64 of the Constitution is being violated by the JSC’s digital platform’s failure to allow journalists to access court proceedings and court documents being conducted on the IECMS platform.
The AMH journalist wants JSC to make a provision for accredited journalists to open IECMS accounts, where they would be able to follow court proceedings and request access to filed court documents.
Alternatively, Chingarande wants the JSC to provide accredited journalists with links to the IECMS platform so that they are able to follow court proceedings on the digital system and to request for court documents.
He gave JSC up to Friday 6 October 2023 to respond to his request and proposals.