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Unethical reporting on Steenkamp case

17 February 2013, 12:43

The death of Reeva Steenmkamp is arguably the biggest story in South Africa since the Hansie Cronje story.  Many of us, including overseas people have followed the story on twitter, local television, overseas news channels etc.  The public has been hungry for the latest updates, but the question is, Is it ethical, responsible reporting in accordance with the law?  I argue that the media and SAPS have been wrong.

At around 08H15, on the day of the alleged shooting, I was listening to Radio 702 and one of their news readers, came in with breaking news that there has been a shooting at Mr. Pistorius house.  This was followed up by an interview with John Robbie and Barry Bateman.  To me this is where the media and SAPS started going wrong.  Let me explain.

Barry Bateman indicated that he was called by his contact from the SAPS who indicated that there has been a shooting at Oscar’s house and it is alleged that he mistook his girlfriend for an intruder and shot her.  Barry went further and indicated that a coroner’s hearse has just left the property.

1.       An accused person cannot be legally named until they have appeared in court – naming Oscar at this stage was clearly unlawful and violating his rights.

2.       Naming Oscar also had unintended consequences.  City Press (on Sunday) reported that Reeva’s brother, heard on the radio that Oscar’s girlfriend had died and he called his father who confirmed that it was indeed her sister who has passed away. This is clearly shocking, unethical and actually infringes on the rights of the Steenkamp family.

3.       The SAPS had no right whatsoever to inform the press on this.  Their action was clearly prejudicial to Mr Pistorius rights and may actually serve to subvert the course of justice for the Ms. Steenkamp’s family.

Die Beeld reported extensively on Friday on the allegations of the shooting and went even further to indicate that their sources in the police have indicated that Ms. Steenkmap was shot through the bathroom door and there were actually four gun shots.

During the court hearing, one newspaper went further to publish the photo of Mr. Pistorius who was crying in court despite the fact that the Magistrate had ruled that no pictures can be taken during the proceedings in court.

In an exclusive scoop from the same three police officials, on Sunday, were extensively quoted in the City Press, stating information contained in the affidavits, the cricket bat, the forensic information and various other non-public information.  In my view this borders on putting profits before the rights of the families involved.  The SAPS officials, who are leaking these sensitive information to the media,  should be named and fired.  They are subverting the course of justice.  The allegations are prejudicial in that after I had read the story, I formed an opinion already on the guilt or innocence of Mr. Pistorius.  These reports are from non-public documents and contains information known only to investigators.  When people are involved in civil litigation one party will usually leak information to the media to portray another in a bad light.  However, when the State has charged one party with a crime such as murder, one has to question what is the purpose of the State unlawfully leaking information to the media.  The answer is very clear, to sway public opinion against the accused. 

The State should not be conducting itself in that manner.  Some of the gory details published by City Press, would have been very shocking for the family of the deceased. Given that the investigation is still on-going, I am sure the investigating officer would have told the family that their investigation is still on going and they will be provided with information later. 

Yes, this is a public interest story, but let us respect the rights of the family of the deceased as well as the rights of the accused.  I hope the media responds on why they felt compelled to (i) name the accused before he appeared in court, (ii) to indirectly name the deceased before the family was notified  and to (ii) publish forensic reports before these documents are public.

To the Minister of Police, I believe that you need to apply to court against Media 24 to reveal the source of information and the fire the police involved in leaking the information to the media.  I would have bought City Press whether they had information about the Oscar report or not.

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