Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Oscar Pistorius Trial - how far will the media push it?

After the ground-breaking decision allowing media almost unfettered access to the Oscar Pistorius criminal trial, a local 24 hours news channel, in direct contravention of a court order allowing the broadcast of the trial, published a still image of the witness.  It apologised almost immediately.  At any stage, the Court may decide to pull the proverbial plug on the trial – so please local media; keep your brains with you and don’t keep pushing the limits…

The management of the Pretoria High Court must surely have tested the Afrikaans to English translator before this trial of global interest?  Surely, the management lined up several ‘substitutes’, it appears not as South Africa continues its embarrassing record with translators and events of global significance – the Wall Street Journal Blog asking the question, ‘Did Another South African Event Get Lost in Translation?

Back to the trial, open justice is a critical concept in South African law and the term is capable of wide-interpretation but, in this context, refers basically to freedom of expression (the public’s interest to watch the trial and understand South Africa’s justice system) versus the right to a fair trial, trial-by-media and the privacy of various witnesses and persons involved in the trial. 

The decision to allow the broadcasting of the trial, creating a live reality TV show and a media frenzy, as has been stated elsewhere, is precedent setting and will be seminal in our law.  The actions of the 24 hours news channel almost immediately abused the court order and places the future publication of the Oscar Pistorius trial in doubt.  A professor of journalism at the University of the Witwatersrand has called the decision to test the order silly and ‘bloody stupid’.  Absolutely. The Judge has warned all media outlets and one hopes sanity will prevail in future coverage. 

Assuming the media plays ball, is the trial being broadcast, discussed and analyzed to the nth degree, any good for South Africa and its legal system?  I think so.  South Africa has a robust and systematic legal system and the coverage can only improve confidence in South Africa’s rule of law – crucial for significant foreign investment and future lawyers…

The other benefits, particularly as someone involved in legal education, is a live test case for students and recent graduates to review and understand.  It provides hands-on experience and a taste of court proceedings to the un-initiated. It also underpins the importance of freedom of expression in South Africa and the evolving concept of Open Justice.

Conversely, one may argue that the South African legal system, or in fact any adversarial legal system, favours those with funds and of a certain class or group.  Simply, money and/or status buys innocence in the eyes of many – perhaps, but the inherent benefit of the South African legal system is that the onus is on the State to prove everything, beyond reasonable doubt.  Oscar Pistorius is innocent at this stage, and until the State can prove otherwise, the coverage should bear that in mind.