South Africa

Oscar and the sanctity of SA’s courts

By Khadija Patel 4 June 2013

“Mister Pistorius, the matter against you is being postponed for further investigation,” magistrate Daniel Thulare told Oscar Pistorius at his pre-trial hearing on Tuesday morning. The postponement was a mere formality. Thulare’s comments on the media coverage of the case, however, were more contentious - especially for us journalists. By KHADIJA PATEL.

Magistrate Daniel Thulare sprung no surprises when he agreed to postpone Oscar Pistorius’ pre-trial hearing to August 19. Pistorius, who was released on bail in February, has been charged with the premeditated murder of his girlfriend, model Reeva Steenkamp (but you probably knew that already). The application from the state to postpone the pre-trail, made by Advocate Andrea Johnson, was unopposed by Pistorius’ defence, and in the meantime Pistorius will remain on bail under the same conditions.

While agreeing to the postponement, Magistrate Thulare did however express his reservations about the way the case was covered in the media.

“Like every literate South African, I also read the newspapers,” he said.

He felt the course of justice was being being perverted by the fevered attention of the case was receiving in the media.

“There appears to be a trial by the media houses of Mr Pistorius,” he said.

The attention the case has received has not abated since February, when Pistorius was released on bail. Last week, Sky News published photos of the crime scene which led some to question whether the investigation was being compromised by the seemingly insatiable public appetite for updates on the case. Magistrate Thulare said such reports breached the sanctity of the judicial processes: “It would appear some of the [media] activities may amount, if not to scandalising the court system in the republic, then to contempt.”

Pistorius’ defence have also complained to prosecutors about the leaked picture, which showed bloodstains on the toilet seat, surrounding floor and the door marked with two bullet holes just below the handle.

Magistrate Thulare appealed to both legal teams, the South African Police Service, and finally all South Africans to better assist the process of confirming Pistorius innocent of premeditated murder, or finding him guilty.

And while Thulare’s comments have echoed the sentiments of some South Africans who believe the media obsession with Pisotrius case is prejudicial to the judicial processes, others believe these sentiments are unfounded.

Constitutional law professor at the University of Cape Town, Pierre de Vos, disagreed with Thulare’s assessment that the media coverage might obstruct justice.

“The magistrate’s comments seem to reflect the legal views and mind set of the apartheid era,” de Vos said. According to de Vos the magistrate has wrongly conflated two key issues in his expressions against the nature of the media coverage of the Pistorius case.

“One is the sub judice rule (fundamentally curtailed by the Supreme Court of Appeal) which prevents a court from publishing material that would cause ‘demonstrable and substantial’ prejudice to the fairness of the trial,” he explained, adding that this has not happened in the Oscar case.

De Vos says another issue which, according to him, the magistrate wrongly conflated is the offense of scandalising the court.

“[This] happens when one attacks the credibility of the judiciary, say, by calling judges counter revolutionaries – and is clearly not applicable in this case,” he said.

It remains to be seen however, if the magistrate’s requests for more responsible media coverage of the case will change the way the case is currently being followed. Quite apart from events in Court C, rumours proliferate that more inside information on the forensic evidence against Pistorius is available to anyone prepared to spend enough cash.

Earlier, Pistorius was forced to wade his way through a scrum of photographers and reporters before making his way inside the courthouse. Braving the cold and dark, a large press pack arrived at the court in the hope that the accreditation process would be smoother than it had been during the bail hearing.

The efforts of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) to control the scrum, though commendable, stood no chance against the chaos on Francis Baard street. Journalists elbowed their way to the front, forcing their way into the court building and thus nullifying the NPA’s efforts.

And yes, all that effort for a mere formality. There was little chance of anything, new or particularly spectacular emerging from Court C. But the numbers in which the press arrived at court, and their frenzied efforts to get in, could be an indication that Magistrate Thulare has a point. DM

PHOTO: Oscar Pistorius arrives at the magistrate’s court in Pretoria, 4 June 2013 (Greg Nicolson for Daily Maverick)

Additional reporting by Rebecca Davis.

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