Opinionista Ryland Fisher 21 October 2014

Pistorius: The ultimate test of objectivity

Journalism, one learns pretty fast, is a career where one had better learn pretty quickly to work around your own baggage. Unfortunately the same is true of the courtroom. This raises some pertinent questions around the much-discussed Pistorius trial.

Whenever I teach young people about journalism, I try to debunk the myth of objectivity, something which you get taught early in Journalism 101. My argument is always that it is almost impossible to be objective because we all have baggage which we bring to our craft.

One could argue that professionals in the law profession also carry baggage which impacts on their decisions and judgments.

In a country as complex and mixed up as South Africa, it is not unusual and unexpected for race to be one of the pieces of baggage that we carry. No matter how hard we try to run away from it, it always seems to impact on our decisions, sometimes negatively and sometimes positively. More and more class also seems to feature as something that plays a key role in South Africa, probably because of the blatant discrepancies in our society.

Watching a little bit of the Oscar Pistorius judgment yesterday – and I admit that I have not watched a lot – I could not help thinking, “What if?”

What if Pistorius had not been white and high profile? What if he had been black and poor? What if the judge had not been a black woman? What if the defence and prosecution lawyers had not been white men?

Would the trial have ended differently? In fact, would it have been brought to fruition so quickly, because, believe it or not, anything less than two years is very quick for justice to be meted out in South Africa?

Reading the numerous Facebook and Twitter comments immediately after Judge Thokozile Masipa handed down sentence, it again proved to me that our society still remains extremely divided among race and class lines.

While the family of Pistorius’ victim, Reeva Steenkamp, have said that they accept the sentence, social media has not been so forgiving. If Oscar had been tried by social media and public opinion, he would have been sentenced to death, because that is inevitably the call that comes back whenever there is a perception that justice has not been fair: bring back the death penalty because it is the best deterrent for criminals, especially murderers.

Of course, much has been written and said about the fact that Pistorius was able to afford the best legal defence and it has been attributed to this defence that he managed to get off on a murder charge and was convicted of the minor crime of culpable homicide.

And when the defence argued in mitigation of sentence, they made much mention of his profile, his disability and the fact that he could not go to prison because it is a bad place. Tell that to the thousands of mainly black South Africans who are languishing in prison at the moment without any hope of seeing justice any time soon.

The Pistorius trial was the one time that I had hoped that South Africa had a jury system and that the fate of the accused was not left in the hands of one person. Taking nothing away from Judge Masipa’s performance during this trial, but she must have felt under incredible pressure to deliver a verdict that would satisfy different interest groups, including the ANC Women’s League, who wanted Pistorius to be convicted of murder and sentenced to a longer period in jail.

They have a point, of course. Violence against women in South Africa is out of control and a high-profile trial like this would have been a perfect opportunity to send a message to criminals that violent crimes against women will not be tolerated.

Imagine if Judge Masipa had a jury; it would have been easy to lay the blame on them for whatever unpopular decision she had to take. If would also have been able to deal with the “What if” questions that inevitably arises out of a case like this.

In the end, despite all the difficulties involved in this case and the clear preferential treatment that Pistorius received because of a range of factors – not by the judge but by just about everyone else, including the media – South Africa’s justice system can hold its head high because a fair judgment appears to have been made, irrespective of who agrees with it or not.

Now all we need is for the same to happen to all the thousands of others who are rotting away in prison with no hope of swift and fair justice, all because they do not share the same characteristics with Pistorius. And you can take your pick: rich, powerful, white, disabled, popular, sports icon, etc.

Like I said, it is very difficult to be objective when you are faced with situations like this. DM


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