Protecting Reeva's dignity

Pretoria - On Monday, we learned that the court will go quite far in its media ban in the Oscar Pistorius murder case in order to protect the dignity and sensitivities of the friends and relatives of Reeva Steenkamp, the deceased.

Before the pathologist Professor Gert Saayman gave his evidence, he requested that it not be broadcast.

“I am a healthcare practitioner, a medical doctor,” he said. “And as such I am bound by certain ethical rules that guide my profession, and in fact there may even be statutory limitations in terms of my conduct when it comes to some of these issues, in terms of the Health Professions Act. It is on that basis that I’ve chosen from the outset to indicate to the court that I wouldn’t be comfortable with a live and contemporaneous stream of my evidence, due to the very nature thereof."

He gave three reasons and four medical-ethical considerations to his reason for the requested. The very nature of such autopsy examinations is very personal and graphic.

Though the deceased do not enjoy the same rights as the living, it was his duty to defend her dignity. There was the family and friends to consider, and of course, unsuspecting members of the public like young children who could be harmed by being exposed to the unfiltered evidence.

“I think that it goes against the good morals of society to make information of this nature available in a manner that vulnerable or unsuspecting people out there so to speak may be exposed to information in a manner that could do harm. I speak of children or people who could be vulnerable. In time, such information would be made available, but it would be paraphrased in some way,” he said.

According to medical ethics, Saayman is bound by four considerations: the principle to do no harm, to try to do good, to do what he believes the client or patient would have wanted, and to consider distributive justice.

In philosophical terms, distributive justice is conceptualised as the perceived fairness of negotiated outcomes.

However, the order that Judge Thokozile Masipa went much wider than what Saayman asked for. All live updates, whether by broadcast or the electronic media were banned.

Twitter and “blogging” were named specifically. There was to be no blow-by-blow account of Saayman’s testimony and no actual quotes of what he said. Paraphrasing was allowed.

Rather predictably, Twitter was awash with details of Saayman’s evidence as soon as the day ended. It is not hard to see how the social media ban makes no sense when reportage is allowed minutes later. (I also anticipate further elaboration on this from the judge on Tuesday morning. It seems like an endlessly complex issue, and unfortunately the judgement does not seem to consider the realities of 21st century journalism. But we shall see.)

Graphic evidence

When Saayman started talking, it became clear why his evidence needed to be protected in the way that it was.

He detailed, in extremely graphic detail, the wound sustained by Steenkamp to her thigh, hip area, hand and head. His academic intonation couldn’t wash away the horror of what he was describing. And Oscar Pistorius himself couldn’t handle it.

He started vomiting and never stopped. From the perspective of the cameras feeding the overflow room, we could see him side-on.

If the evidence given by Dr Johan Stipp about what he saw that fateful morning caused discomfort, then Saayman’s evidence and the athlete’s reaction was distressing. There were audible sighs of relief when the judge ended the court session for the day.

Saayman is perhaps the best witness we have seen in this trial. He is clear, concise and seeks to remove any doubt or possible inconsistency in his testimony. It is a joy to hear him speak, if not a complete one due to the nature of his testimony.

One interesting detail of Saayman’s evidence was revealing that Steenkamp ate something about two hours before she was killed.

That would place the incident at around 01:00 and suggests that Pistorius is mistaken in saying that he and his girlfriend went to bed at 22:00 and didn’t get up afterwards, until the obvious, terrible moment.

But we await cross-examination to see how the defence deals with that.

Earlier in the morning, the security guard who responded to the calls and gunshots, Pieter Baba, finished his cross-examination.

He is absolutely adamant that he called Pistorius first, and not the other way around, and that the athlete first told him that everything was fine.

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
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