Could media coverage limit Pistorius’ chance of a fair trial?

by WAN-IFRA Staff | February 20, 2013

Before Oscar Pistorius’ murder trial began Tuesday, we heard about the rumpled bed sheets, the bloodied cricket bat, Reeva Steenkamp’s shattered skull. We heard whispers of the text message from a former lover that might have sparked an argument between couple, we read about the steroids that Pistorius might have been using that might have caused “‘roid rage.”

Before the trial began, we were told by a South African newspaper that the case against the athlete was “rock-solid.” And before the trial began, many issued guilty verdicts: Los Angeles radio station 98.7 FM tweeted Tuesday, “Today’s Douche of the Day is Pistorius for shooting his girlfriend and being all guilty about it later. Not cool.”

So as today marks Pistorius’ second day in court, many question whether the double-amputee Olympian is getting a fair trial. But by South African law, newspapers have not stepped on Pistorius’ right with their early reporting of leaked evidence.
South Africa abolished trial by jury in 1969, and with it went traditional enforcement of the sub judice law that ensnared media with contempt of court charges. The argument is that judges are above persuasion and thus news reports are unlikely to obstruct the administration of justice. Media expert Dario Milo told The Guardian that a “pretty egregious breach” must occur for any media outlet to be charged in South Africa.

Ferial Haffajee, editor of City Press, the South African paper that broke the story of the bloodied cricket bat, told The Independent that “We are ethically and legally clear… There is nothing in our coverage that will harm the court process.” However, it is possible that newspapers could still face libel suits for their pre-trial coverage, the Guardian reported.

While some argued that legal ramifications would likely accompany such intense pre-trial coverage in countries with stricter contempt of court laws, media consultant David Banks wrote that the Pistorius case demonstrates how, with social media, notions that such a high-profile case could remain immune from close media attention are purely idealistic: “Trying to control coverage of [some egregious crimes] is like trying to hold back the tide, an impossibility,” he writes in The Guardian.

So members of the public have made their decisions based not on court-issued evidence but “stories,” as police spokesperson Katlego Mogale called them. Mogale told The Independent that she had no idea where the leaked information originated. In fact, news sources themselves disagreed about the pre-trial evidence, with City Press proclaiming the bloodied cricket bat as “critical” to the trial and The Independent paraphrasing “well-placed” police sources who said the bat was “irrelevant.”

Stuart Higgins, the public relations representative that Pistorius flew in from London, told The Independent that “the legal team believes the case will be proven in the courtroom and not through the media.” But for members of the public, at least, the case is already closed.

Acknowledging this reality, Anton Harber, director of a journalism program at a South African university, emphasized journalists’ responsibility to ensure that the information they disseminate is verified, especially in the case of leaked pre-trial evidence.
“Otherwise we make ourselves redundant as journalists,” he writes. “Why would people need us if we are doing the same as every social media gossiper?”

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