Parts of Oscar Pistorius murder trial can be broadcast, judge rules
In this file photo taken on Monday, Aug, 19, 2013, Paralympic athlete Oscar Pistorius appears at the magistrates court in Pretoria, South Africa. (AP / Themba Hadebe, File)
Gerald Imray, The Associated Press
Published Tuesday, February 25, 2014 9:14AM EST
Last Updated Tuesday, February 25, 2014 5:23PM EST
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Parts of Oscar Pistorius' murder trial can be broadcast live on television by three remote-controlled cameras in court, but testimony given by the double-amputee Olympian can't be shown, a judge ruled Tuesday.
Pistorius' lawyers failed in their bid to stop any part of the trial being broadcast as a judge sitting in the North Gauteng High Court, where the trial will open next week, ruled mostly in favour of the South African TV and radio applicants.
A live audio-only feed can broadcast the entire trial.
Judge Dunstan Mlambo's decision opens up much of Pistorius' blockbuster trial to the expected scrutiny of millions of fascinated followers around the world.
"Court proceedings are in fact public and this objective must be recognized," Mlambo said.
The decision came two days after a Twitter site to be used by members of Pistorius' family during the trial became active. It already has more than 20,000 followers.
Mlambo, who won't preside over the trial, granted permission to the South African media houses to install unmanned television cameras in unobtrusive locations in the courtroom before the trial starts Monday. Still photographs can be taken by two mounted cameras operated by photographers, but TV footage or photographs cannot show "extreme" close up images of anyone and some witnesses who object can stop their testimony from being broadcast.
Trial judge Thokozile Masipa can stop the recordings at any time, Mlambo said.
Pistorius' lawyers argued that broadcasting the trial in any way would harm his chances of a fair trial. Brian Webber, a lawyer for Pistorius, declined to comment on the ruling, saying he had yet to study it.
Pistorius was charged with murder for the shooting death of girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp a year ago, unleashing a wave of intense interest in the already world-famous disabled athlete. He faces 25 years in prison if he is convicted on the main charge of premeditated murder, which he denies.
Mlambo called Pistorius "a local and international icon" and said the broadcast decision was a "balancing act" between guaranteeing him a fair trial and also respecting the freedom of the media. South African democracy is relatively young and the justice system is "still perceived as treating the rich and famous with kid gloves whilst being harsh on the poor and vulnerable," Mlambo said.
"Enabling a larger South African society to follow firsthand 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," he said.
The broadcasts also can be made available to international stations through a sharing agreement.
Opening and closing arguments can be shown along with the presiding judge's decision and sentencing should Pistorius be convicted, Mlambo ruled. Expert state witnesses' and police officers' testimonies can be broadcast on television and photographed, but not those of Pistorius or his defence witnesses.
The judge did not explain the reason for blocking images of Pistorius and defence witnesses.
The court could consider showing some testimonies from behind the witness stand, obscuring faces or using a general wide shot of the court. No parts of confidential discussions between Pistorius and his lawyers can be broadcast in any way, nor can discussions at the bench among the prosecution, defence and judge, Mlambo said.
The broadcast applications were brought by a South African television news station, a radio network and a cable provider which plans to launch a 24-hour TV channel dedicated to the Pistorius trial on Sunday.
Pistorius' spokeswoman, Anneliese Burgess, told The Associated Press earlier Tuesday that the new Twitter feed, titled @OscarHardTruth, will be operated by herself and members of Pistorius' family "for information sharing."
Pistorius' lawyers argued broadcasting the trial, and specifically witness testimony, could influence the evidence given by later witnesses. The prosecution did not oppose the general application for live broadcast, as long as some conditions were met, but one legal expert said it's a risk.
"It actually puts the state under far more pressure to make sure that the process behind this trial and the preparation of witnesses is absolutely faultless," said Kelly Phelps, a senior lecturer in the public law department at the University of Cape Town.
Phenyo Butale of the Johannesburg-based Freedom of Expression Institute, a non-governmental organization, noted the decision was in line with the expansion of freedom of expression in South Africa since the severe restrictions under apartheid, and trusted the experience of judges.
Trial judge Masipa will ultimately pronounce Pistorius innocent or guilty as South Africa has no trial by jury.
"In a justice system like ours, where you have a highly experienced judge or judicial officer presiding over the case, chances of (the judge) being swayed by media reports and what happens in the court of public opinion are highly unlikely," Butale said. "You cannot only imply that there would be prejudice. It has to be demonstrable."