The Oscar Pistorius trial being broadcast live is an indication that media freedom in South Africa is in a healthy state, say reporters covering the case. Despite this, they believe it is being challenged regularly. (Image: Shamin Chibba)
By Mathiba Molefe and Shamin Chibba
With the Oscar Pistorius trial garnering international attention, it is no surprise to see some of the world’s biggest news organisations camping outside the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria.
Their outside broadcast vans line Madiba Street and their reporters stand outside the court building under a greying sky, facing the cameras, and speaking to television audiences thousands of miles away. Australian, American and German accents are among those heard in the crowd around the shipping container that serves as the Dros mobile kitchen. In the thick of things, journalists and camera crew gave their opinions on the state of South Africa’s media freedom.
Michael Sammut, a cameraman for Channel 9 Network in Australia, who is in South Africa to cover the trial, said South Africa enjoyed a greater amount of media freedom and freedom of expression than his home country. “You probably have more freedom than we have in Australia. It is rare that you have court cases filmed here but it is even rarer in Australia. In terms of going inside, we are not even allowed to go past security with a camera so I was surprised that, on the first day, we were allowed to film in the foyer area [of the court] because that doesn’t happen in Australia. I would be surprised if we had this level of coverage in an Australian case.”
South Africa’s media freedom was unmatched, said SABC current affairs producer Jacques Steenkamp, when compared to countries like Zimbabwe and North Korea. “They’re told what they can do. And if they dare cross the line they’re screwed.”
He said the live broadcast of Pistorius’s trial was an indication that media freedom in South Africa was evolving. “It has to be adapted all the time as new [media] come in.” But it was being tested regularly. One of those challenging moments occurred on Monday, 10 March, when Judge Thokozile Masipa banned all forms of live coverage, including Twitter feeds, during the pathologist’s testimony stating that the details in the evidence would be too graphic. However, print media were allowed to report on it.
Steenkamp was not impressed by the judge’s decision, saying that Masipa seemed not to know what media freedom entailed. “Twitter is just a form of freedom of expression. A precedent was almost created that in other cases this could happen as well, where the prosecution and the defence can basically decide that they want to just stop all kinds of information going out of the court room.”
With elections coming up, political parties would test the media. “The Economic Freedom Front were here the other day. Someone was injured badly and its members attacked the journalists, saying that they’re going to kill them if they dare report [the incident]. That kind of takes media freedom away when certain people’s viewpoints come into the matter.”
Social media’s effects on reportage
Steenkamp, who has tweeted about other high profile events, including the Griekwastad murder trial and the Marikana Commission, was in favour of Twitter because of its immediacy. “Twitter is very direct. It just gets you there and it connects the entire world.”
In the Griekwastad trial, a 17-year-old boy stands accused of killing farmer Deon Steenkamp, aged 44, his wife Christel, aged 43, and raping and killing their daughter, Marthella, aged 14. On 12 December 2013, it was postponed to 18 March, after the accused’s legal team was fired.
While social media networks did have their merits, one could not overlook the possibility of errors occurring when information was shared immediately. “I’ve made a mistake, like when Oscar [Pistorius] pleaded not guilty… I tweeted that he pleaded guilty until I was allowed to correct myself. But mistakes are made; it’s human nature. You can’t get by it but I think in the larger sense of things it’s a free-flowing democracy.”
Having just 144 characters in a tweet limited the journalist in what he or she could say and forced them to paraphrase, Steenkamp noted. “As a journalist, I have to include SABC News’s hashtag and Oscar Pistorius’s hashtag, so [I] have very limited space to tweet. It’s kind of an art form to get accustomed to though, to be able to narrow it down in such a way that you can still tell what occurred.”
He said that as representatives of the public, journalists were supposed to be allowed to report on any events that took place. However, he acknowledged that such reporting had to be done within the confines of the law.
Sammut said Twitter was the best way to keep up with events occurring inside the court while he waited outside. “I’ve been keeping up with Twitter so I know when they are taking a break and being adjourned. That sometimes happens in Australia as well.”
Not willing to talk
The first day of the trial may have attracted more than 300 journalists from around the world, but as it has worn on, the media scrum has decreased. By 12 March, just a handful of the major international and South African news organisations remained.
Asked about the state of South Africa’s media freedom, almost all of the international media refused to comment, saying that they would have to ask their editors or public relations officers, who sat in offices in London or New York, for permission.
Associated Press’s senior television producer, Rob Celliers, said he and his organisation did not have a point of view on anything regarding either the Pistorius case or media freedom. He was only there to cover events as they unfolded. “It’s not up to me to comment on whether the justice system is oppressive or needs to be looked at. It’s just not what we do.”
He did say, though, that interest in the Pistorius trial had been phenomenal. “The interest has been immense for the fact that Oscar is who he is and what he has achieved as a paraplegic in the Olympic Games.”