By Miller Matola
The high profile murder trial of South Africa’s blade runner, Oscar Pistorius, is shining a global spotlight not only on the athlete himself and his personal reputation, but also on our country, its constitutional state and legal system, and ultimately puts South Africa’s brand reputation on centre stage.
The formal commencement of the trial over the past week has generated unprecedented media attention and comparisons have already been made with the similarly high profile and globally televised trial of American football star O J Simpson in recent years.
In the case of the Oscar Pistorius trial, thousands of articles have already appeared in the world’s press, hours of television and radio coverage have been flighted with many more scheduled, and non-stop commentary and analysis emanates from the large numbers of international and local journalists and photographers now decamped in Pretoria outside the court buildings.
The unprecedented decision taken by Gauteng Judge President Dunstan Mlambo, to rule that all trial audio, and selected video, could be broadcast on radio, television and online, was groundbreaking, bringing South Africa into line with other democracies around the world. It also showed the world that South Africa is looking to actively fulfill its commitment to achieving greater transparency with its citizens in relation to the legal system, as embedded in the country’s Constitution.
As South Africa prepares to commemorate 20 years of democratic freedom, this high profile trial serves to remind both South Africans and the world that South Africa’s Constitution may still be fledgling, but it has undoubtedly put in place a substantial framework for the building of a society that is built on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights – the right to a fair trial being one of those rights. Our strong and stable legal system is a fundamental building block of our constitutional democracy, as is the independence of our courts and our judiciary.
In an age when social media is a powerful force in making information and opinions available to a global audience, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, events such as the Oscar Pistorius trial make global headlines and feed the voracious appetite of the public for news in real-time as it happens.
If one looks at the immediacy of international journalists who are able to tweet their reports and insights ahead of scheduled radio and television news coverage, it means that global audiences are receiving a vast amount of information around the trial process as it unfolds.
They are also being bombarded with televised and photographic images both negative and positive of South Africa and its society, not simply its judicial system at work, and such an assault of the senses undoubtedly assists in shaping opinions about the country in the eyes of the world, whether accurate or not.
However, if there is a positive to be taken from this unprecedented level of media attention on South Africa, it is that there is a respect for the right of the country’s citizens to expect an open and transparent system of justice. In the 20 years since South Africa achieved democratic freedom, the principle of the right to justice is one that is upheld for the world to see in action. It is perhaps a testimony to the country’s progress made during the past two decades that it can welcome the global media to see a world-class constitution and legal system in action, despite the challenges of the past and the long road to freedom well traveled. The world’s media has a similar responsibility in high profile trials such as this one to report in a responsible yet engaging manner, and one that is capable of educating the public, not simply providing news and entertainment for the global masses.
Ultimately, as the world watches as the Oscar Pistorius trial starts to unfold, public opinions will inevitably be formed, not just around the lives of those directly involved, but also on South Africa where this drama is playing out in the public spotlight.
Perhaps as we look to commemorate the country’s two decades of democratic freedom, we can take comfort in the robustness and solidity of our legal system and our Constitution which is the cornerstone of that democracy. It provides the reassurance that South Africa protects the human rights of every citizen, including the right to a fair trial, without fear, favour or prejudice. This trial also provides an opportunity to encourage the country’s own population to gain a better understanding of how the country’s legal system works and how it safeguards the legal and human rights of both the person on trial and the victim. It hopefully also sends a message to the world that, despite the huge volume of media headlines around the trial, strong legal ethics define the process, with lawyers on both sides of the argument bound by the same ethical standards.
The global respect for the country’s system of justice and its robust implementation is one that can serve to position Brand South Africa positively in the eyes of the world as it watches to see the outcome of this case.