In a ground-breaking high court judgment today, South African Judge Dunstan Mlambo has ruled that the Oscar Pistorius murder trial may be televised and broadcast live, but with very strict conditions. Audio recording “of the entire trial” will be permitted, but there will be limitations on audiovisual images. There may be no broadcasting when the court is not in session, no flash photography or artificial lighting will be allowed, and closeups will not be permitted. Ironically during Pistorius’s court appearances last year, television coverage was only permitted before and after proceedings.
On March second, Pistorius will be charged with the murder of his beautiful model girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp at his Pretoria home on Valentine’s Day last year. It is accepted fact that he shot her through a toilet door in his en suite bathroom. He admits to have fired the three bullets that hit her in the head, elbow and hip, killing her, but maintains his innocence, saying it was a terrible mistake and that he thought he was shooting at an intruder. He was released on bail of R1 million (about $100 000) last February.
The application to allow live coverage was brought by two television stations, MultiChoice and eNCA, and radio station Eyewitness News, last week. The three media houses had minimal opposition from the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) that, after an initial decision to oppose the application, decided that fighting it would be pointless. They did though call for certain conditions to be imposed. The application was vehemently opposed by the world-famous Olympian’s senior counsel, Barry Roux, who maintained at last week’s hearing that televising and broadcasting court proceedings would result in “an unfair trial.” It is not yet known whether they intend to appeal today’s judgment.
On January 29, the independent South African television broadcaster, MultiChoice announced it would launch a special 24:7 Oscar Pistorius murder trial channel to be produced by their award-winning investigative Carte Blanche program. Starting on March second, the day before the trial begins, it will cover court proceedings and feature documentaries, in-depth analysis by experts and promises to be “a conduit” to a wealth of inside information about the most talked about trial in recent South African history. This morning eNCA broadcast Judge Mlambo’s judgment live. Immediately after the judgment was complete, George Mazarakis, executive producer of Carte Blanche tweeted that he was “thrilled” that the South African judiciary had “matured to this ground breaking decision,” calling it “a seminal moment.”
Meanwhile, on Sunday, Pistorius’s public relations team set up a new Twitter account, Factual Updates @OscarHardTruth linked to the official Oscar Pistorius website. Their mission, they tweeted, would be to “provide the hard truth as it unfolds,” and to “provide information that will become clearer during the trial.” While they tweeted earlier today that a ruling was expected on the media application to broadcast the Oscar Pistorius murder trial live, no commentary was made during the judgment. There were also no comments tweeted directly after the judgment in response to the decision that the trial would be televised, but with strict conditions imposed. By today, the new Twitter account already had more than 19,500 followers.
In his judgment, that lasted for about 50 minutes, Judge Mlambo carefully balanced the rights of all parties, and, citing past cases and references to the criminal justice system, carefully explained how he had reached his decision. During the judgment he referred to Twitter, stating that this application would in any case be used to broadcast elements of the trial to the public domain.
He took into account that both Pistorius and Steenkamp were local and international icons and that the trial had captured the imagination and attention of the world. He said the situation that occurred during the blade runner’s bail hearing had been “near chaotic” in court due to the fact that there was simply not sufficient space to accommodate members of the public and the many local and international media representatives covering the case. He acknowledged that media attention had remained very strong, with media houses from all over the world sending reporters to cover the trial, and said he had considered the fact that the three applicants maintained it was in the public interest to inform “all and sundry” about the trial.
He referred to the South African Constitution and the need to uphold the principles of democracy that expressly uphold the freedom of expression (including freedom of the Press) as well as the right to a fair trial, and access to the open justice principle. But the other issue he had to consider, he said, was how to balance the freedom of expression with the right of people to privacy.
Ultimately, he said that by allowing live broadcasting would demystify the court process because it would enable ordinary people to see and follow the process. Alternatively, he said, a much smaller audience would see the trial in its entirety, and would instead have to rely on small edited packages of information, as well as summarized written “secondhand” versions of the story that could easily be distorted and manipulated. This itself could undermine the fairness of a trial, even if it was done unwittingly. Additionally, media houses intended to form 24-hour channels dedicated to the trial, he said. These would have panels of legal experts including retired judges who would give their opinions during the trial. Since there will be only one judge who will officially preside over the trial (South Africa does not have a jury system) and pass judgment, these channels could in themselves “undermine court proceedings.”
Judge Mlambo ruled that audio recording of the entire trial would be allowed, but audio-visual images would only be permitted at certain times, for instance during opening arguments, evidence of all expert witnesses and police officers and of other witnesses provided they had no objection. Closing argument of the state and of the accused could also be televised, along with delivery of judgment and sentence (if applicable.) This means that the public will be able to hear what Pistorius says, but they will not see him saying it, unless they are in the courtroom.
Print media are allowed to set up equipment subject to certain conditions, and three video cameras may be “unobtrusively positioned” in the courtroom, without any cables on the floor. No company logos are to be allowed on microphones. Further, the accused Olympian and his witnesses may not be photographed except when they are giving evidence.
As a safeguard, Judge Mlambo ruled that if any problems emerged during the Oscar Pistorius murder trial, the presiding judge will have the right to reverse these rights and prevent the media from broadcasting, televising or taking photographs in court. He said that the justice system is perceived to treat the rich and famous with kid gloves while being harsh on the poor and vulnerable. By allowing the trial to be televised live with the strict conditions he has imposed, it would help to ensure openness and accountability, he said.
By Penny Swift