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Does media access to high profile cases really have positive aspects?

12 March 2014, 08:35
As we speak, all eyes and ears are fixed on the Oscar Pistorius trial and all the controversy surrounding what has become one of the biggest media circuses that we have ever seen.

Ever single word spoken in this trial has been expanded into articles upon articles of regurgitated facts and quotes.

However, what kind of effect will judge Thokozile Masipa's decision to allow media coverage of one of the biggest cases in South African history have on the future of all court cases in South Africa?

A phrase that has been used and abused since the day it was uttered for the very first time is "freedom" and even more particularly "freedom of speech" and more recently "freedom of the media" or press.  It seems that over the last few years that every challenge that humanity is faced with is countered by claims of having some sort of "freedom" threatened. 
Yes, we come from an oppressive past that for some unknown reason we can not let go of.

However, the freedoms we enjoy today are being expanded so much that we use these freedoms to get things we want.  When an unspeakable song is written, or a book published, or a movie made, the mere notion of having any part thereof censored or banned brings up immediate debates of "freedom of speech".

But I digress, media in all its forms known to us today, whether it be a newspaper, a video on YouTube or an MP3 on your cellphone, is essential in so many ways.  The free flow of information is in many ways bringing this world together and helping us as humans understand so many things.  We have evolved from searching through countless books in libraries to having any information we need handy at our fingertips anywhere we may find ourselves.

But as with many aspects of life, we as humans have learned to abuse these privileges.  We have decided to film sex, death, violence and all the other ugly this world has to offer and share it with everyone who lives under the blanket of the world wide web. 

I think we can agree that not EVERYTHING is meant to be shared. Surely you will listen to a song with a friend, but not sit in on him/her becoming intimate with his/her wife or husband? But all this is justified under the premise of the "free flow of information" or "freedom of the media". We can even go as far as arguing "freedom of speech".

So what does all of this have to do with the case of Oscar Pistorius? Well, when you look at it closely, allowing the media to cover this case live was one of the worst decisions that could have been made in the history of our legal system. 
When the media were granted access to, what can be argued to be the majority of this case, it was celebrated as a victory for the "freedom of the media" and "the free flow of information". The argument to cover this case was led by the notion that it's "in the public's interest to see that Oscar will be treated as any other civilian". 

Can we honestly regard what we have witnessed so far as the same treatment that will be granted to any other civilian when faced with the same situation? Would we be ambushed by the media every day of our trial? Will we be accompanied by security fit for a US President upon arriving at court? Will every word we say, and every tear we cry be stretched into countless articles detailing every second of our behavior?

The answer is no. The Oscar Pistorius trial has merely become one of the biggest cash cows in the history of media.

On the other end of the spectrum, and coming back to the negative impact this trial poses for our legal system, the impact of this trial has already become apparent within itself.  We have a man being accused of a very serious offence, however the defense uses the media coverage to imply that the trial has been compromised. It's as simple as that. 

With the sheer amount of media coverage this case has attracted, it's next to impossible to have any witness come in and reliably declare under oath that they have not been exposed to this coverage.  As we've seen today, the defense jumped upon the first notion that a witness was following the media coverage and used this to discredit the witness.

We've seen another aspect of this in that witness information that was read in court, was made available through the media. This is a serious danger to any person who are willing to testify in cases of this magnitude. 

It has been mentioned in many articles and I will mention it here again, the decision to 'broadcast' all the details of this case, will have an impact on future cases regarding the willingness of witnesses to come forward and testify.

This will remain a reality as long as the media is allowed access to what should be private proceedings. As long as the media covers any case live, the case will be compromised.
Our president would never allow live media inside an operating theater while he is receiving open heart surgery, would he? So why put another man's life at risk and 'contaminate' a trial like this?

From a legal standpoint, the current fiasco regarding the media coverage is any defense lawyer's dream, as it provides many footholds for proving that the witness testimonies have been compromised and surely also solidifies a case for an appeal, whatever the outcome may be.

In closing, we have to ask ourselves and consider whether we are taking all these "freedoms" that we enjoy today too far and abusing the principals provided therein.  It has become to easy to hide behind a list of 'rights' in gaining what we want, or avoiding sticky situations.  Media coverage is necessary to the extent that it remains what it set out to be, a neutral party to any situation merely reporting on the facts and not being present to such an extent that it materially influences the very events it reports on.

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