Visvanathan Ponnan, judge of the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA), likes his open justice judgments to have good openings. In handing down the leading decision on the right to access court papers in 2015 – where the City of Cape Town sued the South African National Roads Authority Ltd over its toll road project – Judge Ponnan began, “with apologies to John Donne of course, perchance he for whom the toll tolls may be so ill as not to know that it tolls for open justice.”
So too his latest judgment for a unanimous SCA on Wednesday in the Henri van Breda media appeal – “TV, or not TV, that is the question”, Ponnan JA quoted.
And what a judgment it was. In a scholarly analysis worthy of a master’s thesis – all the more remarkable for the fact that the argument in the appeal was only a month before – Judge Ponnan has boldly gone where no appeal court has gone before, marrying the age-old principle of open justice with developments in modern communications technology.
The punch line of the case is that broadcasting court cases is now the general rule and not the exception. The media is entitled as a matter of constitutional right to broadcast court proceedings in their entirety (whether civil or criminal trials, applications or appeals). It is for anyone contending otherwise – the accused in a criminal trial or witnesses, for example – to persuade the court that broadcasting should not take place. This is a fundamental and profound change in approach – the “starting point”, as Ponnan JA puts it, is the right to broadcast courts on whatever platform – whether it be internet streaming, radio or television.