Oscar Pistorius in court. Photo: Getty
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After Pistorius, South African media won't be the same again

With cameras in court, new 24/7 news channels and no-holds-barred commentary on social media, the trial of Oscar Pistorius has shaken up the South African media.

The murder trial of Oscar Pistorius is changing South Africa’s media ecology. It is the country’s first criminal trial to be covered fully on social media and live television, and both journalists and judges have had to learn new rules and practices on the fly.

Previously, we have had television cameras covering the high-level legal debate of our Constitutional Court and the occasional judgement in a major case of national important or commission of inquiry. But a precedent was set when it was ruled in this case that almost all of it could be broadcast live. Only “private”, non-expert, witnesses could opt out of the television coverage, though their audio would still be run live.

This was a step forward for the notion of open justice, though there was also some backtracking when an irritated judge stopped all coverage during the presentation of post mortem results (which have previously been public documents), including tweeting from the court. She had to quickly backtrack on the Twitter ban, when it became obvious that she had not understood the difficulty of containing social media.

Media explosion

South Africa has three new 24/7 news channels, as well as one pop-up TV channel and one pop-up radio channel, the latter two created especially for the Pistorius trial. This has led to unprecedented levels of coverage, as well as analysis and debate on every aspect of the procedure and evidence.

Flip between talk radio and live television and you will hear analysts and commentators dissecting on every aspect of the trial. Much of it is trivia about Pistorius’ every gesture, but there is also discussion about the legal procedure, the meaning of evidence and the performance of the teams of lawyers.

British viewers would be surprised at some of the discussion, with senior legal figures commenting on the performance of witnesses and interpreting evidence with little restraint.

It appears that there are few rules and restrictions. South African law has been relaxed in this regard, with a Constitutional Court ruling in 2007 that media could only be in contempt of court if: “the prejudice that the publication might cause to the administration of justice is demonstrable and substantial and there is a real risk that the prejudice will occur if publication takes place”.

This has opened wide the door to commentary and speculation, especially in the absence of a jury system. The free-for-all which has followed has raised the question of whether this has served the public well.

Better informed

Dunstan Mlambo, the judge who allowed the cameras into the Pistorius court argued that it would educate the public on the finer points of the justice system and demonstrate that all are treated equally before the law.

There can be little doubt that many South Africans are now much better informed about the workings of the courts, and the realisation that it is much more tedious and complicated than the television dramas which usually dominate our screens. If the purpose was to get South Africans engaged in issues of the law and justice system, it has been a roaring success.

Less clear is whether the judge was right that South Africans would see a display of equal treatment before the law. On show is very clearly a rich person’s justice and the fact that a major court case will bankrupt even the well-off. What we are seeing on our screens every day – including the best lawyers of the land and the court officers on their best behaviour – is a far cry from any ordinary person’s experience of our justice system.

Two other cases have been highlighted during the trial. The first was another murder trial just up the court corridor from the Pistorius case, also one of intimate partner violence. It received almost no attention until a foreign correspondent wandered into that court during a quiet moment in the Pistorius trial, and provided a much clearer demonstration of the extent of the problem of domestic violence.

A second case featured another disabled accused, known only as Prisoner X for his own protection, a paraplegic who had been held without bail for two years under the most appalling conditions and without proper medical care.

What we have not seen much of yet in the South African media is an examination of some of the issues which arise out of the trial. These include the gun culture of much of South Africa’s elite which makes the carrying and firing of weaponry a routine part of everyday life; the high levels of gender-based violence, particularly between intimate partners; and the fear of faceless intruders which runs through a society with high levels of violent crime.

It is hard not to think about these things as the trial unfolds, but it often feels that South Africans are trying as hard as they can to ignore them. But it is clear that South Africa’s media environment will not be the same. Coverage – and the conversation around it – is being driven by social media. Conventional media tries to keep up by covering the Twitter and Facebook chatter second-hand.

And the daily newspapers are struggling to keep up, accelerating a serious decline which started a few years ago. Almost all of our daily papers have lost significant circulation in the last two years, which has led to large-scale newsroom cutbacks. The big story of Nelson Mandela’s death at the end of last year brought some relief for sales, but a glance at the dailies now show that they are lagging behind the more nimble electronic media. Suddenly, the country has more live news broadcasting channels than ever before.

The ConversationAnton Harber is chair of the Freedom of Expression Institute in South Africa.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Anton Harber is Caxton Professor of Journalism at the University of the Witwatersrand and chair of the Freedom of Expression Institute.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.