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 case – a 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