Voice of America (Washington, DC)

7 February 2014

South Africa: News Channel Plans Wall-to-Wall Coverage of Pistorius Trial

Johannesburg — This Valentine's Day, February 14, will mark one year since Reeva Steenkamp was shot to death by Oscar Pistorius, the South African Olympic star. As he goes on trial at the beginning of March, his every move will be watched closely in South Africa especially with the help of a 24-hour news channel that will be dedicated to the trial.

When former U.S. football star O.J. Simpson was accused of murdering his wife Nicole Brown Simpson about 20 years ago, the case and trial became a media sensation, with newspapers and television stations breathlessly covering every detail of the story.

South Africa really hasn't had anything of the sort until now. The murder case against Oscar Pistorius has garnered blanket coverage, both nationally and internationally.

Anton Harber is the director of the journalism program at the University of Witswaterand. He said the Pistorius story has marked a change in the media landscape in South Africa.

"It was our first big Twitter story. The newspaper that first heard of the shooting of Steenkamp by Pistorius, put it out on Twitter rather than hold on to the story. It signaled a shift in our news flow," said Harber.

But South Africa has also undergone large changes in the television market.

"In this country we've had 24-7 global news channels, like CNN and Sky for some years. We've had a local one for a couple of years. But in the last few months we've had a proliferation and suddenly we have three of them. So its some surprise that the satellite, the people that provide the satellite bouquet, have decided to open up in a sense their own channel, a fourth one that will be running 24/7, but its the only one that will be entirely dedicated to one story. Definitely this is starting to feel like our OJ Simpson moment," said Harber.

The channel, a pop up channel that will broadcast on satellite television operator DStv, will be run by the producers of Carte Blanche, a very-well respected news magazine show, which frequently does in-depth investigations.

George Mazarakis is the executive producer for the new channel, a role he's held at Carte Blanche for 19 years.

"It's because of Carte Blanche's integrity that people would turn to this channel and watch what we are going to do with it. Clearly we are not going to simply sit there and do salacious reporting. That's not what we do. Our aim is to inform and educate our viewers," he said.

The channel hopes to run a live stream from the courtroom and balance that out with about 78 documentary stories that have been made about aspects of the case and analysis from a team who has 150 experts on call to speak to certain areas of the case.

"So it's an opportunity for us to unpack those things in intelligent and a responsible manner, and at the same time to make it compelling television. Which is what we hope we achieve as a matter of course," he said.

While Mazarakis said the television channel wouldn't sink into tabloid territory, Harber said other media in South Africa have walked over that line.

He said in the early days of the case, especially, as international media descended on the story, finding new elements to the story became important for news organizations.

"There's been a frenzied search in all the news operations, in newspapers in particular, to get something fresh, to break something fresh on the story. And that has pushed some newspapers, I suppose, to take a more tabloid approach. One or two of them burned their fingers quite badly early on in the story by rushing to press some things that were wrong. That sobered a number of news outlets who I think will now be a little more careful," he said.

In a recent opinion piece in South Africa's Mail and Guardian, editor Chris Roper wrote that the country is now a 'Tabloid Nation,' not so much arguing that the country craves sensationalism, but rather quick, and easily digestible information- and any new piece of information.

The Pistorius trial is set to begin March 3. The channel will launch the night before.

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