The tragic death of Reeva Steenkamp on February 14th has gripped not only the attention of South Africa, but that of the whole world. Reports and commentary have exploded onto the front pages of well-known newspapers and across social media networks. There is nothing wrong with intense public interest, and certainly not with freedom of speech, but the vicious nature of some of these reports begs the question – what happened to the concept of innocent until proven guilty.
While Oscar Pistorius admits that he shot Steenkamp, large portions of the media have portrayed what may truly have been an accident as a vicious premeditated murder, before the trial has even begun. The former poster boy for hope and triumph over adversity might be guilty of all the accusations surrounding his girlfriend’s death – but he also might not be.
The media reported on a number of possible facts before they were even officially released. Journalists, of course, have the right to publish their opinion and comment on information being circulated. However the early availability of details, such as the finding of a cricket bat and what was thought to be steroids in Pistorius’ house, has been noted. It is unlikely that such facts would have been available, or published, at such a premature stage, should the crime have taken place in the UK or the US. Officially or not, sources from the South African Police Service have been comparatively quick to come forward with information. The danger of such mini trials by the press was apparent when it emerged the alleged steroids were possibly herbal remedies and had yet to undergo tests. Medupe Simasiku, the spokesman for South Africa’s National Prosecution Agency, said it had been a mistake to identify the substance at this stage, as it was still unknown.
Furthermore the increased role of social media in recent years has raised this hunt for condemning evidence to a new level. Despite the banning of live television access, the explosion of tweets from the courtroom gave unprecedented access to Pistorius’ bail trial when thousands of others gave their opinions. These new tools have contributed greatly to the availability of up-to-date knowledge and information, but one must be careful not to mistake tweeters’ commentary for reliable fact, as opinion and slander can lie between the many truths.
Amongst the media frenzy of rumours and fact are individual commentators who find this an opportune chance to post insulting comments on the accused’s disabilities, race, gender and his racing career. Such contributions are degrading to other athletes facing similar challenges – and totally irrelevant to this tragedy. The phenomenon of public contributions and commentary straight to news articles has allowed access to a huge range of opinions and angles from across a wide spectre of people; however it needs to be used with the same thought and respect expected from professional journalists.
There are newspapers and journalists who have taken the time to provide balanced and contextualised articles. The Irish Times, for example, included information on two other South African cases, from 2004 and 2012, which were also based on mistaken identity. A number have referenced the alarming crime rate (nearly 250,000 burglaries in 2011) and the commonality of a fear amongst South Africans that may not be comprehensible to those who live elsewhere. This balanced with the prosecution’s arguments that four shots was excessive and the fact that Pistorius did not check as to Steenkamp’s whereabouts, allows for a more objective read.
Freedom of speech is something to be valued, but like most rights it must be used responsibly. There is nothing wrong with discussion, but making assumptions of fact and guilt does not benefit anyone. While it is not a trial by jury, and the opinion of the media will be unlikely to sway judges, it is still important that the public pay attention to both sides of the story – even if one side sells more newspapers. It may turn out that Pistorius is guilty to the highest degree but, whatever the outcome, it does not change the fact that South Africa has lost an innocent life as well as a role model that inspired his country, and the whole world, just 6 months ago at the London Olympics. While everyone should be able to have their say, let the final verdict be determined by the courts – and after all the facts have been revealed.