World News

03.11.14

Blacking Out the Oscar Pistorius Media Circus

The judge in the Oscar Pistorius murder trial is trying to gain some control over social and conventional media, in a case that has gripped the world and led witnesses to complain about violations of their dignity.

Any televised high-profile court case runs the risk of turning into reality TV-style fodder for viewers who indulge in it as if it were entertainment—particularly if it deals with narrative elements that play so well to media sensationalism. The Oscar Pistorius trial is notably susceptible to this—the beautiful blonde victim, a fallen hero, excessive gun use (both privately and in public), a possible lovers’ quarrel, rumors of cheating. Add to that a live Twitter feed, a 24-hour dedicated broadcast channel and real-time audio and video streaming and you’ve got a spectacle of Shakespearean proportions that can make for some pretty thrilling viewing.

In this atmosphere, the first two days of the second week of the proceedings signaled the most heightened incidence of media intervention since the start of the trial. Judge Thokozile Masipa opened court on Monday with a stern reminder of the need to preserve the privacy of the witnesses after two claimed that their dignity had been violated on social media (this echoed witness Charl Johnson’s grievances after having his phone details read out to the public). The issue of whether or not to broadcast testimony came up again when witness Darren Fresco, a friend (or possibly ex-friend?) of Pistorius, made mention of the fact that he was wearing shorts during the Tasha’s restaurant gun-shooting incident and not tracksuit pants as originally reported. In doing so, Fresco inadvertently revealed that he had in fact been following details of the court case on certain media channels prior to taking the stand.

The details that were made public, harrowing as they were, provided some key insight that could contradict Pistorius’s original story.

Ultimately, it was the testimony of forensic pathologist Professor Gert Saayman that reignited the debate of what should and shouldn’t be exposed to the public. Saayman, a professor at Pretoria University who has participated in more than 15,000 autopsies in his 30-year career, conducted the post-mortem and was in court to describe, in gruesome detail, exactly how Steenkamp lost her life. Before taking the stand, Saayman asked that all broadcasting material be suspended because of the “very personal nature” of the findings, which he felt could “compromise the dignity of the deceased” and her family.

His plea caused a significant delay in proceedings as a case-within-a-case battle for media access ensued: Hours of precious court time (and a huge chunk of Pistorius’s hefty lawyers’ fees) were spent arguing for open justice and the media’s right to access. Eventually Judge Masipa ordered a ban on live broadcasting of the testimony, including live-tweeting and live-blogging, although she did later amend her initial statement by agreeing to let the media summarize and paraphrase details at a later stage. It wasn’t clear exactly what she meant by that, although what was clear is that South African courts need to get a grip on the complexities of new media and how information is disseminated online. Many argued that the conditions did little for Saayman’s request, and indeed it left the majority of journalists confused about what they could and couldn’t publish online or in any other form (ironically, print media journalists were allowed to take notes —perhaps the first time in recent history where print has enjoyed an ephemeral victory over its digital nemesis). 

Prominent South African journalists Phillip de Wet (Mail & Guardian), Rebecca Davis (The Daily Maverick) and Sipho Hlongwane (News24) all refrained from tweeting in too much detail for fear of crossing any lines. Journalist Aletta Gardner tweeted: “Masipa simply says reporting shouldn’t be “live” —still ill-defined, does this mean we can report on it five minutes later?” Eyewitness News reporter Barry Bateman apparently spent his lunch break on the phone to a media lawyer in attempt to seek further clarification. Other journalists resorted to tweeting descriptions of the courtroom, which mainly involved descriptions of a visibly distraught Pistorius wretching and vomiting as Saayman detailed Steenkamp’s fatal injuries. Jokes were made about whether using Pinterest would be permitted as an alternative since Twitter was the only social media platform mentioned in the ban. Complaints poured in from the public about being denied access to the live viewing, while others lambasted the court for playing favorite to the rich, white and privileged, drawing on previous instances of two other high-profile South African murder cases—that of the rape and murder of Anene Booysen in 2013and the Marikana massacre deaths of 2012. In both those trials, the graphic details of post-mortem findings were read out and displayed without receiving the same level of sensitivity. The victims, in both cases, were neither white nor well-off financially.

It is the second time in South Africa’s legal history that a tweet ban has been placed on the media, and the first time ever that a court hearing has been broadcast live. This no doubt enforces a higher level of interest from a global audience that watches intently, day-in-day out, in hopes that testimony like that of Saayman’s will add additional drama to an already riveting narrative. The issue here is determining where to draw the line between public interest and what the public is interested in.

The details that were made public, harrowing as they were, provided some key insight that could contradict Pistorius’s original story. According to Saayman, the bullets used were ‘Black Talon’ bullets, named because of the claw-like formation that they form on impact. They are specifically designed to ‘flatten out and mushroom’ when striking human tissue, and are intended to cause maximum damage. Steenkamp was hit on the right hip, elbow and the right-side of her skull, presumably in that order, all of which shattered on impact. Saayman said. A bullet also struck the webbing of her left hand. While her hip wound could have been fatal, her head injury would have incapacitated her immediately, although there was a chance that she would have managed a few breaths prior to death, according to Saayman. Screams between gunshots would have been likely, he said. “I think it would be somewhat abnormal if one did not scream when sustaining a wound of this nature,” added Saayman. This could contradict advocate Barry Roux’s insistence that Steenkamp would have not been able to make any sounds after being shot.

Saayman also found evidence of food in Steenkamp’s stomach, which, he said, suggested that she may have eaten one or two hours before the time of death.While he did clarify in Tuesday’s cross-examination that it would be difficult to pinpoint an exact time, Saayman’s analysis may contend Pistorius’s version of events, in which the couple went to be bed around 10pm, raising further questions as to what might have happened between those hours leading up to the shooting.

The remainder of Tuesday’s court session concluded with Fresco’s testimony of the Tasha’s restaurant incident and the event in which Pistorius allegedly shot a firearm out of a car sun roof. Fresco will return to continue his testimony tomorrow.