Trial by media!!!

2013-02-20 15:14

Known South African law expert Pierre De Vos wrote an interesting and compelling column focusing on the ‘power’ of public opinion in the alleged murder case of Reeva Steenkamp by her famous double amputee boyfriend and Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius.

Valentines Day is ‘normally’ a day about love and happiness but on February 14 this country woke up to the news that star athlete Oscar Pistorius had allegedly murdered his girlfriend after he mistook her for an intruder at his plush home in Pretoria.

Speculation not facts…

In his column law expert Pierre De Vos warns of the dangers of speculation and jumping to conclusions without first ascertaining the facts. He says

“Shocking allegations, suggesting that Oscar Pistorius murdered Reeva Steenkamp in cold blood in a fit of rage, were published in City Press yesterday (Sunday). The publication of these allegations illustrates that the so-called sub judice rule no longer exists in its original guise in South Africa.

"It also illustrates that in the court of public opinion the notion of “innocent until proven guilty” (as well as appeals to the sub judice rule) are often used by those blindly and loyally supporting a criminal accused (regardless of the alleged facts) to try and avoid admitting that their guy might very well be a criminal. These two issues are intimately related.”

With the major news retailers all leading with the Pistorius story, it’s not hard to see how to see how most people have already come to the conclusion he’s guilty.  Before the police had even issued a statement of what happened on that fateful day headlines such as “Oscar mistook girlfriend for intruder” and “Pistorius shoots Steenkamp four times” were making international news.

Online news websites, newspapers, television and radio stations were running the story naming Pistorius as the suspect before he appeared in court as the law requires.

Trial by media doesn’t “depend” on facts but uses catchy headlines, unnamed sources therefore (in)directly influencing the public to come to a certain conclusion long before the trial starts. Many people usually decide a person’s guilty or innocence based on media reports and regard the court process as a ‘mere formality.’

‘Guilty until proven innocent’…

The Newsroom’s (tv show) MaCkenzie Mchale said something interesting about media bias in an episode. She said, “The media's biased towards fairness," and McAvoy explains, “Bias toward fairness means that if the entire Congressional Republican Caucus were to walk into the House and propose a resolution stating that the Earth was flat, the Times would lead with, 'Democrats and Republicans Can't Agree on Shape of Earth.'"

Essentially saying that if a journalist had asked the police who the suspect was and officer refused to comment, tomorrow’s headline would be “Police won’t confirm Pistorius is the suspect.”

De vos continues, “In a criminal justice system in which criminal trials are heard by a jury of ordinary citizens, relatively strict rules are often in place to regulate reporting on criminal cases. Where incriminating allegations against an accused flood the media before the start of a trial, the minds of potential jury members might be contaminated as they might form a strong opinion about the guilt or innocence of the accused – long before the state begins to present the evidence against that accused in court.”

Problem with trial by media is that the facts are discounted and replaced by opinions which mean the public has convicted or acquitted the accused long before the trial date is set.

Opionion is not fact and fortunately the courts rely on physical evidence, eye witnesses and experts before convicting or acquitting someone. Only in France and on twitter is someone quilty until proven innocent...

I'm on twitter as @BongaDlulane

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