The timely demise of criminal defamation law

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Two weeks ago, I presented at a workshop organized by the African National Congress (ANC) on criminal defamation – how it differs from civil defamation, some recent developments across Africa, and why criminal defamation is unconstitutional, in my view.   At the workshop, the ANC made a dramatic and welcome announcement that it would spearhead legislation to rid South Africa of criminal defamation – an announcement which I wrote about in the Mail & Guardian last week.   The announcement was widely covered in the media – a good report by eNCA can be found here.  Unfortunately for the Democratic Alliance (DA), its premature speculation in a media statement before the ANC’s workshop – that the ANC’s intention was to pass insult laws to protect the president – proved to be a spectacular own goal.  (Of course the DA has other problems to deal with at the moment, following the sharing on Facebook by one of its prominent MPs and the shadow minister of police of a post praising PW Botha).

Here is an extract from my speech which I presented at the ANC workshop on criminal defamation. Continue reading

2014: A Bumper Year for Media Law

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2014 was an important year for the media. Our courts handed down significant rulings – some good, some bad, and some ugly. I’ll discuss some of the most important cases here.

The Oscar casea quantum leap forward and then a few steps back

The media law highlight of the year was undoubtedly the decision of the Judge President of the North Gauteng High Court, Dunstan Mlambo, in the application by broadcasters to televise the murder trial of celebrity Olympian and Paralympian Oscar Pistorius. I blogged about the case here, and you can find the decision here.

This was the first time in South Africa’s history that a criminal trial was broadcast live. Judge Mlambo recognised the importance of balancing the principle of open justice against the rights of the accused and the state to a fair trial. He ruled that the entire trial could be broadcast by audio, and that the media could televise the opening and closing arguments, any interlocutory applications, the judgment, and the evidence of the experts and police witnesses for the state, as well as any lay witness who consented to being televised.

I am of the view that the broadcast of the trial was a great success in educating the public and generating debate about aspects of our criminal justice system. Certainly, despite protestations to the contrary by Oscar’s legal team in their closing arguments, the broadcast of the trial can certainly not be said to have rendered any aspect of the trial unfair to either side. You can read my blog (with Stuart Scott) on the impact of the broadcast on the fairness of the trial here. And even the President of the UK’s Supreme Court has reportedly indicated that he thought that the filming of the trial was impressive.

While the decision of Judge Mlambo was a quantum leap for open justice, a number of decisions by the trial judge, Judge Thokozile Masipa, undermined open justice. First, she changed the rules regarding photographs of witnesses. The general rule is that a witness who gives evidence in a court case cannot have his or her identity protected, or prevent photographs of themselves been published. Yet Judge Masipa ruled that the media could not publish a photograph of any witness who did not consent to being televised, either until the end of their evidence, if the witness was a public figure, or, if a private figure, until the end of the trial.   (For a diagrammatic representation of this ruling, see here).

Two other open justice restrictions were also baseless: Judge Masipa also banned the live broadcast and tweeting of the evidence of the forensic pathologist called by the state; and the publication of the written heads of argument in the case until oral argument was presented. At least Judge Masipa had the sense to overturn her live tweeting ban the following day.  For further discussion of Judge Masipa’s curious orders, see my blog with Stuart Scott here.

Judge Binns-Ward’s Sanral decision – the bell tolls for open justice

But in my view, Judge Masipa was not the only judge whose rulings undermined open justice during 2014. Later in the year, Judge Ashley Binns-Ward of the Western Cape High Court, in a judicial review case between the City of Cape Town and SANRAL, handed down a decision which dramatically restricts the ability the media to access court documents from the court file, and the ability of parties to pending litigation to distribute documents to the media. You can read the case here.

The main case concerns the City of Cape Town’s judicial review of a decision in terms of the SANRAL Act to declare part of the N1 and N2 national roads as toll roads. In an interlocutory application, SANRAL argued that part of the City’s supplementary affidavit should not be made public, as it contained sensitive and confidential information provided to the City by SANRAL in the litigation. Judge Binns-Ward took the opportunity to discuss rule 62(7) of the High Court Rules relating to access to court documents.   This rule states: “Any party to a cause, and any person having a personal interest therein, with leave of the registrar on good cause shown, may at his office, examine and make copies of all documents in such cause’.

Judge Binns-Ward interpreted this rule as only permitting access by the High Court registrar to persons with a direct legal interest in the case – which would typically exclude the media. He went on to hold that a party to litigation who receives documentation from his opponent under compulsion in terms of the rules, cannot make that documentation public without the consent of his opponent.

The bottom line for the media is that the judgment makes it much harder for the media and the public to get access to court documents before a case is heard in court. Judge Binns-Ward’s consolation prize is that the media could bring a court application for access – an expensive and slow process. And many cases are settled before ever reaching a hearing – the documents in such cases are now effectively sealed indefinitely.

The City of Cape Town has been granted leave to appeal by the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA). Hopefully the SCA will pay greater regard to the principle of open justice when it decides the appeal this year.

PAIA successes : The Khampepe report, National Key Points and ArcelorMittal

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Lights, Camera, Oscar!* — Did Judge Masipa find in her judgment that the broadcast led to an unfair trial?

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By Dario Milo and Stuart Scott

Tomorrow, Judge Thokozile Masipa will decide what sentence Oscar Pistorius will be given in respect of his conviction for culpable homicide. Judge Masipa’s judgment in respect of the conviction, handed down last month, led to a sea of divided opinion.

First, there was diversion amongst legal experts. Professor Stephen Tuson from the University of Witwatersrand, on the one hand, was quoted as stating “[w]e have many judgments which essentially say: ‘If you point a firearm at someone and shoot, then you intend to kill them’“.  This suggests that Oscar should have been found guilty of murder on the basis of dolus eventualis.

On the other hand, Professor Jonathan Burchell, the author of one of the leading texts on criminal law, opined that the ultimate conclusion Judge Masipa reached – that dolus eventualis had not been shown because of Oscar’s mistake as to whether he was acting lawfully – was correct.

The judgment also resulted in markedly-divided opinion amongst members of the public. As Zapiro succinctly captured in his cartoon after the judgment, everyone is now a criminal law expert.

Zapiro cartoon

In our view the kind of rigorous debate which ensued was largely due to the unique access that legal experts (who were not involved in the trial) and the public at large were granted by virtue of the live broadcast.  It presented an opportunity to follow each and every aspect of the trial as it unfolded, and to evaluate each piece of evidence that was introduced as if they were sitting in the courtroom.  In our view, this level of openness has been positive and has facilitated a better understanding of the criminal justice system in South Africa and why Judge Masipa decided the case in the way that she did.

But for us media lawyers there was another talking point, which relates to a few extraneous comments in Judge Masipa’s judgment about the impact of media publicity on the evidence led in the trial.  This has led to some journalists making the incorrect claim that Judge Masipa found that the broadcast of Pistorius’s trial compromised his fair trial rights, and that she expressed herself to be against the live TV broadcast of the trial.

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Media Law Newsletter – August 2014

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Media Newsletter 2

You can read the Webber Wentzel Media Newsletter here.

In this issue:

Recent work by the Webber Wentzel Media Team:

Griekwastad convicted murderer turns 18 — now may we identify him?

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By Dario Milo and Stuart Scott

Journalists need to take great care, from a legal and ethical perspective, when reporting on cases involving a child accused. This post deals only with the legal position.  Under our law, section 154(3) of the Criminal Procedure Act provides that no person shall publish any information which reveals or even which may reveal the identity of an accused, or witness in criminal proceedings, who is under the age of 18 unless the presiding judicial officer authorises the publication of such information. Breaching the provision is a serious criminal offence and those found guilty could be sentenced to a fine or 5 years’ imprisonment (or even both).

The position in relation to a child accused is thus reasonably clear. But what happens when a child accused attains majority during criminal proceedings or where a teenager is convicted turns 18 and there is a pending appeal? These questions have been brought sharply into focus as the teenager, who was sentenced on 13 August 2014 to 20 years in prison for the so-called Griekwastad murders, reportedly turns 18 today.

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