Fairness does not mean everyone gets the same. Fairness means everyone gets what they need.
– Rick Riordan, The Red Pyramid –
I feel compelled to acknowledge that it is impossible to even begin to imagine how the family of Reeva Steenkamp — supermodel and murdered girlfriend of Oscar Pistorius — must feel. Speculating on this matter would be crass and presumptuous. The extent of this horrific tragedy and its impact must be incomprehensible, especially with the media’s insatiable hunt for sensation. Words fail to express enough sympathy that would bring any comfort to them.
South Africa and the global community have struggled for the last 7 days to come to terms with the fact that the most famous Paralympic athlete, Oscar Pistorius, an international hero and role model to millions, shot dead Reeva Steenkamp at his home in the early hours of Valentine’s Day.
Since the news broke, I watched in horror how a worldwide media frenzy erupted and witnessed the most deplorable, sensationalist and inaccurate media ‘reporting’ ever.
With a high-profile case like this, which is bound to attract international interest, it is only fair and reasonable to expect respectable news sources and their journalists to stick to a degree of social responsibility and integrity while keeping the public informed with the cold hard facts. Above all, to do so sympathetically for the sake and respect of the families trying desperately to make sense of this horrific tragedy.
Instead, the press jumped at every opportunity to indulge in the kind of speculation usually seen in rag paper magazines, all for the sake of selling their ‘story’ — in effect building their own case against Oscar Pistorius. The result is a painful and almost deliberate cacophony of unconfirmed facts… and in many cases fiction. It is a grotesque example of trial by mainstream and social media.
I am in no sense giving my own magnanimous verdict and pardoning the athlete for his actions on 14 February. I don’t have to, because Oscar Pistorius has already admitted his guilt for shooting his girlfriend. By now he has also realised that there must be a trial and that justice must take its course. This is at least my perception of his behaviour in court so far. He is by no means trying to walk away from Reeva Steenkamp’s murder scot-free.
Reporting on criminal and other legal trials is not prohibited in South Africa and the media has very much a free-reign in what can be said. Yet so-called credible international press sources like the BBC, Channel 4 News, New York times, Los Angeles Times, The Telegraph and The Independent, have thrown all journalistic ethics overboard and adopted a tabloid-style hunt for sensational half-truths… and they have taken an attitude of ‘do as the romans do.’
The whole ‘truth’ must still be established, which is why the press still has a journalistic (and moral) duty to explain accurately how this will take place… especially since members of the public may not be familiar with the South African Roman-Dutch legal system. Instead of highlighting the criminal judicial proceedings and how these are applied, the media so far has coerced in turning a pre-trial bail application into a mini murder trial. This unnecessarily prolonged a basic legal procedure to over nearly a week — a procedure that normally takes nothing more than an hour.
It is unprecedented in any court case to have so many facts and evidence heard in the pre-trial stage, especially when only a bail application is concerned.
Things erupted the moment Oscar Pistorius was charged with ‘Premeditated Murder’, which in the US translates to First Degree Murder. By definition, in South African Law, Premeditated Murder means that Oscar Pistorius must have planned, conceived and executed the murder of Reeva Steenkamp. This of course would imply that, if true, Pistorius is a cold-blooded murderer.
Yet, very few media sources bothered to explain what Premeditated Murder really means in the South African legal context and why the prosecution made this charge:
• From a prosecutors point of view, it is always best to raise the maximum charge possible for the crime committed. If it later transpires that the evidence presented during the trial points to a greater crime than the initial charge raised, the accused cannot be given a new maximum charge for the same crime. For example, if Oscar Pistorius is charged with manslaughter but the evidence points to premeditated murder, he can only be trailed and judged on the charge of manslaughter.
• On a second and more speculatory level, the prosecution may have made the charge because they feel there is enough evidence to prove that Oscar Pistorius did indeed plan the murder of Reeva Steenkamp.
• Thirdly, falling back on the definition of Premeditated Murder, the prosecution may argue that having a firearm at his house was not for the intention of defending himself, but purely for the reason of killing someone with it. It can therefore be construed that he ‘planned’ the murder. The prosecution can also argue that, under South African law, you can be charged with murder if you kill someone while you are not in immediate danger. Even if the accused argue that he or she acted in self-defence, the murder charge can still hold.
The latter, is the angle the media chose to focus on, without explaining the other important factors coming into play. Within a matter of hours since the charge was brought against Oscar Pistorius, a hero and demigod was turned into a blood thirsty monster. The media decided to run with the unproven ‘facts’ and therefore, ‘beyond any reasonable doubt’, Oscar has lost his case in the public eye without ever appearing in front of a judge or telling his side of the story… ready to be locked up. The only sentence for Premeditated Murder in South Africa is life in prison. (However, in this case the prosecution have suggested in court that a sentence of 15 years to life in prisonment is on the cards.)
With very little or no understanding of the legal position of the prosecution, it’s no wonder that Joe Public, in an almost unanimous ‘guilty verdict’ across the globe, started to tweet, post opinions in comment threads and Facebook status updates, ending short of feeding the athlete to the lions in a roman-circus style execution.
Under normal circumstances and with a more balanced and less inflammatory approach, the press should only have reported the following:
- • A woman has been found murdered at the home of Oscar Pistorius. It is believed she was shot three times.
- • The athlete has been charged with premeditated murder.
- • The defence denies the charge of premeditated murder but admits that the accused shot his girlfriend as he mistook her for a burglar. Defence will apply for bail.
- • Prosecution will oppose bail arguing Pistorius is a flight risk.
- • Defence will argue special circumstances in favour of the bail application.
- • Bail is either denied or approved.
- • The trail date is set.
Instead, the public was subjected to defamatory half-truths, like the allegations of a ‘bloodied’ cricket bat found in Pistorius’ house the night of the incident. Some even went so far as to claim that the cricket bat was a key part of the evidence against Pistorius and that Ms. Steenkamp’s autopsy results showed that her skull was crushed.
However, it later transpired that there was no blood on the cricket bat and that the prosecution now claims the bat may have been used to force entry into the bathroom where the dying Ms. Steenkamp was lying.
Bludgeoning someone’s skull with a cricket bat and using a cricket bat to force entry through a door to provide help and assistance, are two very different stories that imply two very different things about the character profile of the accused and the events of that particular evening.
Worst still, Reeva’s family had to read this. How cruel is that.
The bloodied cricket bat is just one example of the unmitigated misinformation published and reported by the press. In fact, very little has yet been confirmed as irrefutable evidence. Neither the prosecutors nor the defence lawyers have had time to scrutinise forensics and eyewitness accounts. This will take months. Making any allegations or assumptions about the evidence would be premature at this stage.
A lot has been said about Oscar receiving ‘special treatment’ because of his global status. This could not be further from the truth. In fact, if anything, he received questionable treatment. His pre-trail bail application has been turned into a media-circus and under that pressure, and for the sake of sensationalism, it has now become clear that the prosecution did a botched job in collecting trustworthy eyewitnesses and evidence in their case against him. Prosecution have even gone so far as to backtrack on their own initial statements regarding the events of what happened that fateful evening.
To put it plainly, the quality of evidence in the case against Oscar Pistorius have shown disastrous shortcomings and in same instances it’s transpired that the evidence presented by the prosecution has been trumped up. Yet, the media simply can’t get enough of the story and their voracious appetite for more, and yet more, gory details seems to feed our blood lust.
Premature speculation carelessly obscures the course of justice. The big difference between the English legal system and South Africa is that South African criminal trials are not decided by jury. The thinking is that judges are trained to put aside their prejudices and decide cases on the basis of the evidence before them and the law. I doubt that this will be the case in Oscar Pistorius’ trial and fear that there is a real risk of substantial prejudice to the administration of justice.
The media is well-aware of its power to influence public opinion. It is disgraceful that this tragedy was turned into nothing more than a Christmas-come-early and a free-for-all for reporters and journalists across the globe, creating a Kafkaesque public reaction. It is not unheard of that a public outcry can influence the outcome of a murder trial…
This whole thing reeks of a Roxie Hart and Billy Flynn scenario.
We seem to have forgotten, whilst playing judge and jury, that a man (who millions still adored a week ago) have to stand trial for murdering his girlfriend — a person who, by all accurate accounts, he was in love with. He deserves a fair trial, like any other criminal. Yes, a crime was committed. I am not denying that and neither have Oscar Pistorius and his defence team. To what degree he committed this crime must be decided by a court of law — uninfluenced by media sensationalism and social-media antics.
Above all, Reeva Steenkamp’s family deserves a fair trial. It will take them years to recover from their loss. An accurate and fair verdict may perhaps help them to get some peace and comfort a tiny bit sooner.
I am astounded at how a society can manage to turn someone we have put on a golden pedestal, into a murderous villain within seconds based on what tabloid papers are feeding us. Can we not think and reason for ourselves with fairness… Or at the very least, question what we are told?
I can only hope that we have moved on from the days when people were thrown to the lions to be eaten alive in a public spectacle. In a civilized society — one with advanced legal systems and procedures that supposedly should enable the course of justice — it is not our place to bellow and cry like bloodthirsty hounds and demand for Oscar Pistorius to be burned at the witches stake. Not without a fair trial. So far he has not had one. The blame lies at the door of the media monster, who is out to get a pound of flesh no matter what.
He will pay, no matter what. He has already lost the backing of his sponsors, his career and reputation is in tatters, and he has to live with the memory of what he had done to Reeva Steenkamp for the rest of his life… something I still believe, in my heart of hearts, was an accident. Hopefully, Oscar’s defence will prove the prosecution wrong through mitigating factors.
Still there will be no winners in what ever the outcome is. Not for Reeva Steenkamp’s family and not for Oscar Pistorius.
Is that not enough?
Images: All images sourced from the internet and are not the property of Little Red Shoes.
Text: FR Lubbe