News Hugh O'Flaherty

Friday 22 August 2014

Televising the Pistorius trial is a first for South Africa but it might not work here

Hugh O’Flaherty

Published 11/03/2014 | 02:30

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Oscar Pistorius at Pretoria High Court where he stands accused of the murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp.

The trial of Oscar Pistorius in South Africa has generated huge media attention worldwide since TV cameras have been allowed – for the first time in South Africa. Many media outlets (including independent.ie) are carrying streams of the trial on their websites.

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There is no doubt that the proceedings are of absorbing interest, featuring an outstanding athlete and a very glamorous, but now deceased, young woman.

However, the trial judge, Thokozile Masipa, ruled that some evidence, from the pathologist, should not be broadcast because the testimony was too graphic.

Oscar Pistorius, the double-amputee Olympic sprinter, is charged with the premeditated murder of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp.

He accepts that he fired four shots, three of which struck the victim, into his bathroom, but he claims that this was because he mistook her for a burglar.

In addition, he faces a number of separate firearms charges. Evidence was given that he discharged a firearm in a crowded Johannesburg restaurant and asked the owner of the gun to take the blame.

This was just a few weeks before he shot Ms Steenkamp.

A former girlfriend, Samantha Taylor, told of his firing a shot through the sun-roof of a car after being stopped by police.

The state seeks to portray Pistorius as being pretty gun-happy and on occasion not so pleasant to his girlfriends. The state case, in essence, is that there was a heated argument between the couple and that the screams heard by neighbours were before any shots were fired and that they were a woman's screams.

The defence case is that the screaming came after the shots were fired and came from a distressed Pistorius.

There is no jury at this trial so the media can enjoy an open season that would not be possible in a jury trial. For instance, there was shown an emotional interview with Reeva Steenkamp's mother. The testimony of the witnesses is dissected in social media. TV channels conduct interviews with legal experts and other pundits.

Is there a possibility of having TV cameras in Irish courtrooms?

The Constitution is very clear that justice must be administered in public "save in such special and limited cases as may be prescribed by law". The doors of the courts must always be open so that members of the public may come and see for themselves that justice is done. The purpose of having public criminal trials is so that the accused is fairly dealt with and not unjustly condemned.

The public are to be admitted to courts not as a concession but as an entitlement and to take written accounts of what is going on if they so wish.

So, why should proceedings not be televised? Indeed, with the present trial of the former Anglo Irish bank directors, there was set up a video link to a separate courtroom to deal with the over-spill of people wishing to attend the trial.

Is there any distinction between allowing such a link and in allowing a nationwide audience to observe the proceedings by switching on their television sets?

Another example worth referring to is the trial in Norway of the mass-killer Anders Breivik some years ago.

This was a very harrowing case where Breivik had murdered 77 people and his only regret was that he had not accounted for more. It was televised but the court consisted of five judges; there was no jury.

In this country, aside from the Special Criminal Court and the case of minor offences tried in the District Court, criminal trials are held where the jury's verdict is paramount. So the latitude given to the media in the Pistorius case could not apply.

Jurors are precluded from checking the internet for information; indeed from discussing the case with anyone – even family members – outside their fellow jurors.

In the meantime, there is no doubt the South African trial provides enthralling viewing. There is much that is not in dispute. But the critical element is: was this a horrific accident or did Pistorius act perhaps in a rage but nonetheless deliberately in firing the shots?

Irish Independent

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