A legal breach of the strict conditions imposed on hundreds of journalists covering the Oscar Pistorius trial in South Africa stopped court proceedings this morning. Prosecutor Gerrie Nel interrupted the defense cross-examination of Michelle Burger, first witness in the dramatic court case, to tell the judge that a photograph of Burger had been flighted on television “in violation of a court order.” Soon after this, millions watching the case live on television heard as the judge instructs the media to behave, otherwise they will pay the price.
Exactly a week ago, in a ground-breaking South African judgment, it was ruled that the Oscar Pistorius trial could be televised live under very specific conditions. These conditions included witnesses having the option to not be filmed. Michelle Burger chose this option, which meant only the audio recording of her evidence could be broadcast.
The two television stations that have been allowed to place cameras in the courtroom are Multi-Choice, which has a special channel 199, OPTCB (the Oscar Pistorius Trial Carte Blanche) and eNCA, a station that runs a 24-hour news broadcast. It was eNCA that was in breach of the ruling, though they have said it was a genuine mistake. While broadcasting the audio feed live today, they did not screen images of the witness in court, but instead they used a photograph of Michelle Burger they had sourced off the internet, from a website that is available to the public.
Patrick Conroy, Head of eNCA News released a comment to say they were not violating the court order. However Judge Thokozile Masipa made it clear she instructs the media at the Oscar Pistorius trial to refrain from using any photographs of witnesses who do not want to be filmed. It was irrelevant where the pictures came from, she said. Further, if the media did not behave after this legal breach, they would not be “treated with soft gloves.”
Judge Masipa also told the court that the whole matter would be investigated because it could be “the tip of the iceberg,” and she wanted to know the extent of media “noncompliance.” It is known that Beeld, an Afrikaans newspaper published in Gauteng, used a photograph of Michelle Burger today. According to editor, Adriaan Basson, they also believed using a stills photograph that was not take at the trial would not be a contravention of last week’s court order. No other “contraventions” have been publicized, so it is not known if there are any other issues after this so-called legal breach. But the media, represented by around 500 journalists from different parts of the world, got the message loud and clear that they must “behave.”
Most of today’s evidence involved Michelle Burger, who was cross-examined at length by Pistorius’s advocate, Barry Roux. Eventually she broke down in tears after repeating her testimony of the number of shots and screams she had heard. At one time Roux insisted he had asked her the same question eight times. Public prosecutor Nel interrupted saying that she had answered the question eight times.
Burger’s husband, Charl Johnson also gave evidence today, as well as another neighbor, Estelle van der Merwe who lives very close to the Pistorius home.
The world-famous Olympian blade runner does not deny that shots he fired through his bathroom door on Valentine’s Day last year killed his gorgeous model girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp. However, he maintains it was a terrible mistake and has pleaded not guilty to the charge, as well as additional charges that relate to guns and ammunition.
The state has more than 100 more witnesses lined up to give evidence against Pistorius, including more neighbors, security guards and other people who worked at or close to the gated complex where he lived at the time of the murder. It has also been reported that there are at least ten criminal experts who will give their opinion during this trial, dubbed as the South African criminal trial of the century. While it is going to take some time for them to all have their say and be cross-examined by both the state and defense legal teams, the fact that we know the judge heading the trial instructs the media covering the proceedings to behave according to pre-determined parameters, will have journalists on their toes. Any further legal breach at the Oscar Pistorius trial could result in an end to live broadcasts after what happened today.
By Penny Swift