Pistorius trial drives record coverage – and debate – in S. Africa

The prosecution and defense presented closing arguments Thursday and Friday. While a lot of attention has focused on prurient details, the trial has also spurred national conversations about race, wealth, and justice.

Themba Hadebe/AP POOL
Oscar Pistorius, l., looked toward the parents of the late Reeva Steenkamp, June (second from right) and Barry Steenkamp (right), on his arrival at court in Pretoria, South Africa, Friday. The fathers of both the victim and the accused were in court for the first time.

As the prosecution and defense presented closing arguments in the trial of South African track star Oscar Pistorius this week, one fact stood beyond dispute: Early on the morning of Feb. 14, 2013, the Olympian fired a series of shots through the locked door of his bathroom, killing his girlfriend, the model Reeva Steenkamp.

But nearly every other facet of the case – from Mr. Pistorius’s motive to the meaning of his text-message missives to Ms. Steenkamp to the position of the fans in his bedroom on the fateful night – was up for debate.

The conversation about the athlete’s guilt or innocence stretched far beyond the drab Pretoria courtroom where he listened with hunched shoulders to the final proceedings. Since the trial began in March, it has become a singularly consuming media sensation here, devoured in live blogs and streaming video of the court proceedings, in news articles, talk shows, and op-eds. But even as the celebrity, wealth, and glamor of the lead characters drove much of the public interest, the trial was also notable for the deeper conversations it spurred about everything from race and privilege to gender and justice. 

“Not even OJ Simpson got this kind of coverage,” says Ylva Rodny-Gumede, chair of the journalism department at the University of Johannesburg. “[The Oscar trial] has been dissected in unprecedented detail.”

Coverage here has outpaced news on South Africa’s national elections, a major presidential corruption scandal, and leading international headlines, including the Malaysia Airline disasters, according to statistics compiled by the media analysis firm Data Driven Insight. On Thursday alone, South African media outlets published 364 pieces about the trial.

The Pistorius trial has even given rise to its own popular “pop-up” television station, which runs 24 hours a day whenever court is in session and has close to 200,000 viewers in South Africa alone, making it the most popular satellite channel in the country, according to the New Yorker.

The trial is also the first to be live broadcast in its entirety, which media analysts say has compelled traditional media outlets into a frenzy of live-tweeting and up-to-the-minute analysis of the case’s every pivot in order to keep pace.

“It is clear that South Africa’s media environment will not be the same” after the trial, wrote veteran journalist Anton Harber earlier this year. “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.” 

Much of the daily coverage of the trial is saturated by the prurient and livid details of the crime – and persistent arm-chair analysis of the romantic relationship that preceded it – but Ms. Rodny-Gumede says not all of the conversation has been so basic.

“For ordinary citizens, the live coverage of the trial has given them some insight into the South African legal system, which I think is a good thing,” she says. 

Indeed, because South Africa does not have trial by jury – and thus no chance of prejudicing a jury – there are few checks on the kinds of speculation pundits can make about witnesses and evidence in an ongoing court case. In 2007, the Constitutional Court, South Africa’s highest court, ruled that journalists ran afoul of the law only when “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.”

Mr. Harber, the veteran journalist, defended himself against the charge that media attention on the case was frivolous. "I do not believe interest in this case precludes interest in other issues," he wrote in his blog. On the contrary, the trial is stimulating a healthy national debate about our justice system, race, gender, privilege and the fear-and-gun culture of a significant section of this country." 

Marathon sessions

As prosecutor Gerrie Nel and defense lawyer Barry Roux unwound their closing statements in marathon six-hour sessions on Thursday and Friday, local and international media filled most of the courtroom, seated directly behind the somber Pistorius and Steenkamp families. The fathers of both the victim and the accused were in court for the first time.

Mr. Nel devoted his day of speaking to highlighting the contradictions of Pistorius’s account of Steenkamp’s death, saying he had told a “snowball of lies” and that his version of the story was a “farce.”

Throughout the trial, he told Judge Thokozile Masipa, Pistorius had been “more concerned about defending for his life than entrusting the court with a truthful account of his conduct.”

Mr. Roux shot back forcefully, saying the prosecution had relied on shaky circumstantial evidence to build its case and that investigators had botched key evidence.

“It’s a fallacy to use circumstantial evidence the way the prosecution has,” he said. “The state says because there was January now it must be February. You can’t do that.”

After arguments finish Friday, Judge Masipa and her two assistants will deliberate and return a verdict – likely sometime in the next few weeks.

In a small general store across the street from the high court building in Pretoria, its shelves crammed with dusty cartons of cookies and sacks of corn meal, shopkeeper Said Ayubu watched the coverage of the proceedings on a small television as customers filtered in and out.  

“He’s on the radios, the TVs, all the channels, all the time,” he says of Pistorius. “I was watching all the time in the beginning but now I don’t want to. This man made South Africa so powerful in the world because of his sport, and I don’t want to watch him go to jail.”

He fell silent, then turned his eyes back to the screen.

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