Nkiruka Azuka Omeronye, a reporter for KNWA/FOX24 News in northwest Arkansas, was found in contempt of court and sentenced to three days in jail on Nov. 19, 2019.
Omeronye, who broadcasts as Nkiruka Azuka, admitted in court to using her cellphone to record the Oct. 7 proceedings in a capital murder case. She said, however, that she was not aware that Benton County Circuit Judge Brad Karren had filed an order in June prohibiting any recording in his courtroom. There is also a state Supreme Court rule prohibiting recording without the judge’s permission.
According to Arkansas Online, Omeronye said during her hearing that she understood that it was a sensitive case and that she had recorded to proceedings only to ensure the accuracy of her notes, not with the intention of broadcasting it.
“I did not mean to disrespect you or your courtroom,” Omeronye said. She testified that she had previously worked at stations in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Phoenix, Arizona, where reporters were permitted to record in courtrooms, and that she did not see signs in the lobby or on the courtroom door warning against recording the proceedings.
Karren appeared to accept Omeronye’s apology.
“I think you have shown the proper remorse,” Karren said. “I don’t think you were thumbing your nose at the court.” He also stated that he believes Omeronye’s employers let her down by not ensuring she was aware of the court’s rules.
Karren found that Omeronye deliberately recorded the proceedings and ruled her in contempt of the court. He ordered her to serve 10 days in the Benton County jail, but suspended seven of the days. Karren also placed her on six months probation and barred her from his courtroom.
Omeronye was scheduled to begin serving her sentence on Nov. 20, and was going to be permitted to leave the jail in order to go to work.
After Omeronye’s sentencing, KNWA/FOX24 General Manager Lisa Kelsey said in a statement that the broadcaster regrets the incident.
“Nkiruka has offered a sincere apology to the judge, to her colleagues, and to the station. As we do with all our journalists, we have counseled her on obeying all courtroom rules, as well as Arkansas Judicial Guidelines,” Kelsey said.
Omeronye’s sentence drew criticism from media outlets and journalism organizations who called the jail time “excessive.”
Arkansas Society of Professional Journalists chapter President Sarah DeClerk said in a statement, “We consider the judge’s actions to be excessive and disrespectful of the public service provided by journalists to all citizens interested in the judicial process.”
Arkansas Online reported that judge Karren called the jail on Nov. 20 and reduced Omeronye’s sentence to time served. She was released from custody at 5 p.m., a few hours after beginning her sentence.
Omeronye was ordered to pay $250 in court costs, and told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, “All I can really say is that it’s done and that I’m moving on.”