Print options

February 25, 2014

S. African Judge Rules to Partly Televise Pistorius Trial

by Anita Powell

The trial of South Africa's most famous athlete, Oscar Pistorius, can be televised live, a judge ruled Tuesday.  South African journalists say they hope this ruling will open up the country's courts to media coverage.

Pistorius goes on trial next week in Pretoria for murder in the shooting death of his girlfriend, model Reeva Steenkamp.  

He says he mistook his girlfriend of three months for an intruder in his Pretoria home; the prosecution claims he shot her intentionally.

​​Pistorius shot to fame by being the first double amputee to compete in the Olympics, in 2012. He also has won a slew of medals at the Paralympic Games.

The confluence of celebrity, sex and sports contributed to a storm of media interest, with hundreds of journalists jockeying for just 80 seats inside the courtroom.  A South African station will launch a 24-hour channel dedicated solely to the case.

In a radical departure from normal procedure in South African courts, Judge Duncan Mlambo ruled Tuesday that parts of the trial may be televised live.  The request was brought to court by several prominent South African media houses.

Yusuf Abramjee, the head of news and current affairs for Primedia Broadcasting, said he was happy with the ruling.

“We obviously welcome the judge’s ruling.  It’s a victory for free speech, it’s a victory for media freedom, and it’s a victory for our constitution, which guarantees us the right to have access to our courts," Abramjee said.

The ruling comes with strict conditions.  Video cameras will be remotely manned from fixed positions, parts of the trial are off-limits, and witnesses can choose in advance to opt out of being televised.  

The ruling comes with strict conditions.  Video cameras will be remotely manned from fixed positions, parts of the trial are off-limits, and witnesses can choose in advance to opt out of being televised.  

Also, the camera will not be allowed to focus on Pistorius himself, even when he testifies.  For pictures of Pistorius during the proceedings, TV stations will have to rely on a courtroom sketch artist.  Photos of him will be allowed only when the judge is not seated.

Despite the limitations, Abramjee says this trial is just the beginning.  South Africa’s boisterous media has previously attempted, with little success, to film other high-profile trials, such as those of President Jacob Zuma, who was tried and cleared on charges of corruption and rape.

Abramjee says Judge Mlambo's ruling is a "final step" to ensuring courts are open to the media.

“Obviously the Oscar Pistorius trial is something different -- it’s no ordinary case, he’s a high-profile international figure and this is why we are having the world’s interest," Abramjee noted. "But most certainly it’s going to the future.  This will open the door for us to go and broadcast similar cases with high public-profile interest, and we believe that it’s the beginning of a change of the judiciary and its access to the public going into the future.”

The trial begins Monday, with millions of people around the world tuning in, live.

​​