Mis-Communicator of the Week: The South African Legal System

In February this year the South African High Court ruled in favour of a group of media companies calling for the trial of Oscar Pistorius to be broadcast live on TV and radio. The trial of Pistorius – sentenced eight months later to five years in prison for culpable homicide – would be shown to millions of people in South Africa and around the world, allowing access to one of the most controversial celebrity trials in history. It would also divide those who watched proceedings as well as creating a soap opera out of the death of a talented young woman.

In the UK, mainly due to the ongoing Sky News campaign to allow cameras in court, we have had days on end when it seemed only a court room in Pretoria mattered. New evidence or testimony was presented as “breaking news” and correspondents were asked to provide a running commentary of the trial.

Anyone who has advised clients involved in a legal battle will appreciate that it is always necessary to keep the wider context in mind rather than concentrate on evidence presented on any one day or in any one session. When your job is to make the news seem exciting – as is the job of a TV journalist – this crucial contextualising of legal process is too often ignored.

What wasn’t ignored however was the shoddy way in which the South African police had investigated the killing of Reeva Steenkamp. The reputation of the South African legal system was further undermined by allegations that police had stolen watches from the athlete’s home which was supposed to be a crime scene. Proceedings in the court itself and the quality of testimony offered on both sides also seemed second rate.    

At the time of the decision to televise the Pistorius trial the judge justified their decision saying that the ruling would dispel the “negative and unfounded” perceptions that the justice system in South Africa treated “the rich and famous with kid gloves whilst being harsh on the poor and vulnerable.”

After the sentencing Reeva Steenkamp’s mother said that justice had been served. As a millionaire athlete heads to prison for what could be for just 10 months one wonders how many others around the world agree and whether previous “negative and unfounded” perceptions of the South African justice system have been reversed. I’d argue they have merely be reinforced which is why I make the South African Legal System my Mis-Communicator of the Week. 

Communicator of the Week is written by Ed Staite.

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