Publication: The Star Issued: Date: 2004-10-14 Reporter: Max du Preez

Fear of Change Bars Cameras from Trial



The Star

Date 2004-10-14


Max du Preez

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I think it was fear that robbed South Africans of the opportunity to watch one of the most important court trials in years on television. Fear of the unknown, fear of change. But then, our judiciary has never been known to be bold in embracing new things.

I don't buy the reasons Mr Justice Hilary Squires gave for declining the application of and the SABC to televise the trial of Schabir Shaik.

For instance: where does the witnesses' "right to privacy" come into the picture? They will now in any case be chased by camera people once they leave the court - and the visual images will mostly be unflattering. The reporters will in any case write about not only their testimony, but about their appearance, their body language, even their background.

The judge was also reported to have said that the presence of cameras in court could compromise the concept of a fair trial. In this he was supported by Shaik's legal team and the National Prosecuting Authority.

Did the judge mean that watching the court proceedings on television every evening after court would influence his and his assessors' opinion on whether the charges brought against Shaik were real or false? If that's the case, why not then simply avoid watching television? But they were going to read and listen to news reports of the trial anyway, weren't they? Wouldn't that have influenced them unduly? Or who else could the judge have had in mind - this is not a jury trial? Doesn't it only depend on the presiding judge and his assessors whether a sound judgment is made after hearing all the evidence?

The judge also said the court room was too small.

Schabir Shaik's lawyer, brother Yunis, told reporters the cameras would be intrusive, the lights would be too bright and the technicians would stumble around the room.

Even the learned Prof Karthy Govender of the University of KwaZulu Natal agreed with the judge's ruling, saying that we do not know what effect the cameras would have on witnesses, because this procedure had not been tried before.

This is all nonsense, at best a result of ignorance. We have had televised judicial proceedings before in this country: for more than three years the hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission were televised and recently the hearing of the Hefer Commission on spy allegations against Bulelani Ngcuka. It worked like clockwork.

I was in charge of the television cameras at the TRC when I was the executive producer of the SABC's weekly programme on the TRC, so I have a good idea of what it entails. Our cameras never disrupted the TRC hearings; our technicians never stumbled about when proceedings were on; our lights were never so bright that it bothered anybody; we took up very little space in the rooms where the hearings were taking place.

Three operators sit quietly behind their cameras, with cables feeding the audio and visual signals to another room or an outside broadcast unit.

Our cameras also did not intimidate witnesses.

Witnesses were hardly aware of our cameras, because they were at a distance and they were completely still.

And we had a sensible, responsible approach: when a witness broke down or became overly emotional, the camera zoomed out rather than in.

It would be easy for the court and the broadcasters to agree to what lighting is used in the court; where the cameras should be placed; and what protocols should be followed. Only three cameras, at a push even only two, are necessary because all broadcasters take the same feed from them.

I have no doubt that a large part of the TRC's huge impact on South Africans was due to the fact that they could watch the proceedings in their own homes; that they could see the characters for themselves and hear the evidence first-hand.

Let's not forget that the Schabir trial is an open trial and open to any member of the public. Judge Squires and his legal brethren did not apply their minds to the notion that the television cameras would do nothing else than enlarge that audience.

I have argued in favour of cameras in court before in this column, making the argument that it familiarises the public with our courts and their proceedings.

I made the point that South Africans understand the American judicial system a lot better than their own, because they could follow trials like that of OJ Simpson.

Not many years ago politicians had the same arguments against televising the proceedings in parliament: it would be intrusive, people would act up for the cameras, etc.

Today all sessions of our parliament are filmed and much of it televised live. It doesn't bother anyone - but it does greatly contribute to the accessibility of and the public's familiarity with the political process.

The Schabir case is important on many levels. It is very important that it should be seen to have been a fair and proper process, because it could have far-reaching consequences.

It should be brought into the homes of all citizens.

With acknowledgements to Max du Preez and The Star.