Publication: Sapa Issued: Cape Town Date: 2004-10-25 Reporter: Wendell Roelf

SABC to Televise Highlights of Thatcher Case





Cape Town

Date 2004-10-25


Wendell Roelf


In a precedent-setting judgment, a full bench of the Cape High Court on Monday ruled in favour of the SABC's request to televise Mark Thatcher's case on Tuesday.

Thatcher, who is to be questioned about a botched coup in Equatorial Guinea, is scheduled to appear in court on Tuesday to contest the validity of a subpoena compelling him to answer questions from prosecutors from that country.

Justice Deon van Zyl said on Monday that because of the urgency of the matter, reasons for the judgement would be given later.

Van Zyl granted the national broadcaster the right to have its cameras in court on Tuesday and Wednesday -- the first time that proceedings would be captured on camera in a high court civil matter -- subject to certain amendments to a draft proposal by the SABC to help safeguard the integrity of the trial.

Among these were that the delayed broadcasting on television by a means of an edited highlights package would provide a "balanced and fair" account of the day's proceedings, and that the court could suspend the broadcast should proceedings be disrupted.

The ruling came despite argument from advocate Michael Donen, SC, for justice minister Brigitte Mabandla, opposing the application on the grounds that televised broadcasting could have negative consequences for South African nationals, such as alleged mercenary Nick du Toit, who was facing the death penalty in Equatorial Guinea.

"This is not an argument sucked out of my thumb... (I am) taking it from the Chief Justice (Arthur Chaskalson)," said Donen.

He argued that cutting and pasting of edited soundbites, the screening of possible "showboating" by counsel and the possibility of "denigrating" the justice system of Equatorial Guinea, could not be controlled by local and international media.

"The concern is that it should not affect adversely the trial of Du Toit," said Donen.

Questioning if it were commercial or public interests which motivated the SABC, Donen said the broadcaster had seen a "loophole" in the judgement two weeks ago involving media coverage of the Schabir Shaik trial, and took advantage of that loophole without "consideration" to South Africa's foreign relations and its nationals in foreign countries.

Donen also argued that the application should have been dismissed on procedural grounds alone, adding that it was "wholly inappropriate" for the SABC to ask for a precedent-setting judgement on short notice because Dr (Snuki) Zikalala was attending Icasa meetings.

However, the full bench consisting of Justices Van Zyl, Essa Moosa and Dan Dlodlo, refused to be swayed.

Earlier, Brian Pinkus, SC, for the SABC, said Thatcher would not be prejudiced by the proposed delayed broadcasting.

"He will get a fair hearing," said Pinkus, adding that Thatcher's right to privacy would not be infringed.

Pinkus said the proposal was to have delayed coverage with an edited package checked by SABC lawyers to see that all safeguards were adhered to.

The SABC proposed to have three tripod-mounted cameras inside the court and two operators, with no special lighting.

Pinkus argued that the cameras would not be obtrusive and would not disparage the judicial process, but rather enhance it because recordings were more accurate.

"Television has become commonplace. It is time for history to be made," he said.

The SABC in its heads of argument said the proceedings would be the subject of intense public scrutiny.

It said a successful application by the SABC would enable it to fulfil its obligations by providing news on matters of public interest to the largest portion of the public possible, "including those who may not have access to newspapers, who are unable to read and who rely solely on TV for purposes of obtaining information".

The SABC based its application on the freedom of expression clause in the Constitution.

A member of Thatcher's legal team, advocate Anton Katz, said his client would abide by the court's decision.

Katz however emphasised that "with or without cameras" his client wanted Tuesday's matter to proceed on time.

SABC spokesman Paul Setsetse said the broadcaster welcomed the decision.

"... we believe that the court has taken into account the Bill of Rights in the constitution that provides for access to information as well as freedom of expression.

"This is a decision which we welcome as the SABC and it will go a long way in the broadcasting history of this country."

With acknowledgement to Wendell Roelf and Sapa.