I had an interesting conversation the other day about the Oscar Pistorius Trial channel presented by DSTV on channel 199 (disclosure: I have appeared on the channel to express my thoughts about social media aspects of the trial coverage). The person I was chatting to mentioned that he subscribes to one of the smaller DSTV packages and he doesn’t have the Trial channel available to him.

That seemed a bit odd because I was sure that the judgement granting the media permission to cover the trial dealt with public access to the media coverage so I went back to Deputy Judge President Mlambo’s decision.

One of the grounds for allowing practically unprecedented media coverage of the Oscar Pistorius trial was the principle of open justice. Judge Mlambo explained the rationale for this principle as follows:

Our Constitution is underpinned by a number of values and for purposes of this case I refer to openness and accountability. In this regard it is also important to take cognizance of the fact that sections 34 and 35(3)C) make it very clear that even criminal proceedings in this country are to be public. The basis for this is that courts of law exercise public power over citizens and for this it is important that proceedings be open as this encourages public understanding as well as accountability.

Judge Mlambo then quoted the 2001 Constitutional Court decision in the S v Mamabolo case which included the following:

Since time immemorial and in many divergent cultures it has been accepted that the business of adjudication concerns not only the immediate litigants but is a matter of public concern which, for its credibility, is done in the open where all can see. Of course this openness seeks to ensure that the citizenry know what is happening, such knowledge in turn being a means towards the next objective: so that the people can discuss, endorse, criticize, applaud or castigate the conduct of their courts. And, ultimately, such free and frank debate about judicial proceedings serves more than one vital public purpose. Self-evidently such informed and vocal public scrutiny promotes impartiality, accessibility and effectiveness, three of the important attributes prescribed for the judiciary by the Constitution.

After weighing up the media’s, the public’s, Mr Pistorius’ and his witnesses’ competing rights, Judge Mlambo granted the media an order permitting them to cover the trial on TV (subject to limitations we have become familiar with), using still photography and radio. We had a hiccup when Judge Masipa prohibited live tweeting of the pathologist’s evidence (she subsequently reversed her decision the following day after considering the issue further) but we have otherwise received almost realtime updates of questions asked and answers given as well as other aspects of the trial numerous journalists and commentators have felt were worth sharing.

It is worth bearing in mind Judge Mlambo’s statements regarding making the proceedings more accessible to less privileged citizens:

… Moreover, in a country like ours where democracy is still somewhat young and the perceptions that continue to persist in the larger section of South African society, particularly those who are poor and who have found it difficult to access the justice system, that they should have a first-hand account of the proceedings involving a local and international icon. I have taken judicial notice of the fact that part of the perception that I allude to is the fact that the justice system is still perceived as treating the rich and famous with kid cloves whilst being harsh on the poor and vulnerable. Enabling a larger South African society to follow first-hand the criminal proceedings which involve a celebrity, so to speak, will go a long way into dispelling these negative and unfounded perceptions about the justice system, and will inform and educate society regarding the conduct of criminal proceedings.

Judge Mlambo also issued a directive to the broadcasters who have been covering the trial regarding the footage they generate:

The MultiChoice and Primedia and the Media 24 Applicants are directed to make the feed from the authorized broadcasts and still photograph referred to above available free of charge to the e.Tv applicants and any other broadcaster and/or media organization in “clean” form, that is free of any logos.

It is therefore a little odd that TV coverage on DSTV’s network seems to be limited to certain subscribers, especially given repeated assurances from journalists and their superiors that the purpose of the coverage is to service the open justice principle, not to sensationalise or otherwise take undue advantage of the trial hype. Perhaps limiting access to subscribers of more expensive DSTV packages was simply an oversight that is sure to be corrected soon?