Parts of Oscar Pistorius' murder trial can be broadcast ‘live’ by three remote-controlled cameras set up in court, a judge ruled Tuesday, but the testimony given by the double-amputee Olympian himself can't be shown.
Pistorius' defense lawyers failed in their bid to stop any part of the trial being broadcast as a judge sitting in the North Gauteng High Court, where the trial will open next week, ruled mostly in favor of the South African TV and radio applicants.
Judge Dunstan Mlambo's ruling now opens up much of the blockbuster trial to the scrutiny of millions of fascinated followers in South Africa and around the world.
"Court proceedings are in fact public and this objective must be recognized," Mlambo said before delivering his ruling.
Mlambo granted permission to the South African media houses to install the unmanned television cameras in "unobtrusive" locations at least 72 hours before the trial opens Monday. A live audio feed can also be broadcast. Still photographs can be taken in court by two other mounted cameras operated by photographers, Mlambo said, but TV footage or photographs cannot show "extreme" close up images of anyone in the court and witnesses who object can stop their testimony from being broadcast.
Pistorius' defense lawyers had argued that broadcasting the trial in any way would harm his chances of receiving a fair trial. Brian Webber, the lawyer representing Pistorius in this hearing, declined to initially comment on the ruling saying he had yet to study it.
Pistorius was charged with murder a year ago and the shooting death of girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp at his upscale house in the eastern suburbs of the capital, Pretoria, unleashed a wave of intense media interest in the world-famous disabled athlete. He faces a possible sentence of 25 years in prison if he is convicted on the main charge of premeditated murder, which he denies.
Mlambo called Pistorius "a local and international icon" and said his decision Tuesday was a careful "balancing act" between guaranteeing Pistorius a fair trial and also respecting the freedom of the media.
South African democracy is still relatively young and the justice system is "still perceived as treating the rich and famous with kid gloves whilst being harsh on the poor and vulnerable," said Mlambo, who will not preside over the trial.
"Enabling a larger South African society to follow firsthand the criminal proceedings which involve a celebrity so to speak will go a long way into dispelling these negative and unfounded perceptions about the justice system and will inform and educate society regarding the conduct of criminal proceedings," he said.
The decision also opens the way for parts of the trial to be broadcast live across the world in sharing agreements with international broadcasters.
Opening arguments by the prosecution and the defense can be shown live, Mlambo ruled, along with the presiding judge's decision and sentencing, should double-amputee Olympian Pistorius be convicted. Expert state witnesses' testimony can be shown but not that of Pistorius or his defense witnesses, the judge said.
Broadcast restrictions could also be placed on other witness testimony if they object. The court could then consider showing such testimonies from behind the witness or obscuring their face, or a general wide shot of the court when the witness was on the stand.
No parts of confidential discussions between Pistorius and his lawyers can be broadcast in any way. Nor can discussions at the bench between the prosecution, defense and the trial judge, Thokozile Masipa, be broadcast.
The live audio feed of the proceedings will be permitted through the trial to feed radio stations, with restrictions also placed there on Pistorius' testimony and if witnesses object in writing 24 hours in advance to their testimony being broadcast.
The television cameras would not be manned in court but rather controlled from another room, which could be inspected by the judge presiding over the trial, Mlambo said.
The applications to broadcast the trial were brought by a South African television news station, a radio network and a cable provider which will launch a 24-hour TV channel focusing on the Pistorius trial on Sunday.
Stephen Tuson, an adjunct law professor at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, said the broadcast decision could add an "extra string to the bow" to the defense which could argue that witness testimony is being contaminated by the televised broadcasting. For example, he said, a state witness who hears the testimony of the preceding witness could then tailor evidence ahead of a court appearance.
That argument formed the backbone of Pistorius' opposition to the media applications.
But Phenyo Butale of the Johannesburg-based Freedom of Expression Institute, a non-governmental organization, noted the decision is in line with the expansion of freedom of expression in South Africa since the severe restrictions under apartheid and trusted the experience of judges.
Trial judge Masipa will ultimately pronounce Pistorius innocent or guilty as South Africa has no trial by jury.
"In a justice system like ours, where you have a highly experienced judge or judicial officer presiding over the case, chances of (the judge) being swayed by media reports and what happens in the court of public opinion are highly unlikely," he said. "You cannot only imply that there would be prejudice," he said. "It has to be demonstrable."