Voice of America (Washington, DC)

4 March 2014

South Africa: Pistorius Trial Judge Notes Pitfalls of Media Attention

Pretoria, South Africa — The murder trial of South African Olympic runner Oscar Pistorius has attracted unprecedented media attention. The coverage of the story, however, has not been without problems.

Pistorius' closely watched murder trial is the first major South African criminal trial to be broadcast live from within the courtroom.

The trial is being played on local radio stations and two South African news providers have started a cable channel dedicated entirely to the case.

But critics say the media attention has had significant issues. Among the critics is the trial's judge, Thokozile Masipa.

On day two of proceedings, Masipa lashed out at local media for publishing a photo of a witness who did not give broadcasters permission to film her testimony. In doing so, Masipa showed while that she may talk very softly, she carries a big stick.

"I must say this is very disturbing, I am warning the media if you do not behave you are not going to be treated with soft gloves by this court," she said.

Media mistake

University of the Witwatersrand journalism professor Anton Harber said the media outlets, including a prominent TV news station that ran a photo of witness Michelle Burger on screen along with her testimony, made a mistake.

"I think it was very foolish of the media to run a picture of the witness when it is clear that courts were trying to protect her. I think technically they may not have been in breach of the rules and regulations, but they were certainly in breach of the spirit, and that is a rather silly thing to do when the judge has her finger hovering over the control button for public broadcast," said Harber.

Pistorius has pleaded not guilty to the charge of murdering his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp on Valentine's Day, 2013. He said he mistook Steenkamp for an intruder when he shot her four times through a locked bathroom door.

In its first two days, the state has tried to use the testimony of Pistorius' neighbors and circumstantial evidence to discredit his story. Each time, defense lawyer Barry Roux has methodically tried to pick apart the witnesses .

Varying levels of professionalism

Harber said this level of skill and detail, though, is not typical.

"Well, this is representative of the best of South African justice, when media scrutiny and lots of money means everyone's on their best behavior and have all the resources they need. But this is rich man's justice in a country where, in most cases, and cases of this sort are not unusual in South Africa, the defense, and often the accusers, would often have no defense, the prosecutor would often be overworked and underprepared, and you never know about the behavior of the judge or magistrate," said Harber.

To see that, one need look no further than the Pretoria High Court.

Court GD, where Pistorius is being tried, is a hive of media activity. Reporters madly type in the packed media seats. Photographers lurk outside the courtroom. Across the street, media organizations have erected a virtual tent camp.

But just down the hall, a court has been listening for months to the wrenching tale of Zanele Khumalo. Her's is a common tale in South Africa, where a woman is killed every eight hours by her intimate partner.

Zanele was 18 and five months pregnant. Her 26-year-old boyfriend and father of that unborn child, Thato Kutumela, was found guilty in January of raping and murdering her in 2011.

The case has dragged on for more than two years since then. On Thursday, Kutumela is due to be sentenced in the High Court.

No one expects the case or the verdict to garner much attention. The eyes of the world will be looking just down the hall, at Oscar Pistorius.

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