Social Networks

#OscarTrial199: Social Media Bridges Barriers

Judgement will be handed down on the 11th of September in what has been deemed the “trial of the century” – the Oscar Pistorius murder trial. Since the final arguments from both the defence and prosecutor, there hasn’t been much debate about the trial. But there’s no doubt it will become a point of reference and form part of case studies in future ICT and Media research across the world.

Though there were fears that Oscar would not get a free and fair trial due to evidence being shared on public space, it is undeniable that the trial exposed South Africans to their country’s justice system, courtesy of live radio, television, and most importantly, social media.  

Twitter and Live TV Enter the Courtroom

This story was big news. As soon as it broke several media houses approached the court for permission to stream court proceedings live. The court ruled parts of the trial to be streamed, including opening and closing arguments, judgement and sentencing, and testimonies by witnesses, experts and police. Witnesses who did not wish to appear on camera were exempted from the ruling.  

When he delivered the ruling Judge Mlambo explained:

My view is that it is in the public interest that, within allowable limits, the goings on during the trial be covered as I have come to decide to ensure that a greater number of persons in the community who have an interest in the matter but who are unable to attend these proceedings due to geographical constrains to name just one, are able to follow the proceedings wherever they may be.

Enabling a larger South African society to follow first-hand the criminal proceedings which involve a celebrity, so to speak, will go a long way into dispelling… negative and unfounded perceptions about the justice system, and will inform and educate society regarding the conduct of criminal proceedings.

Still, it would be naïve to think that every criminal case in South Africa is treated the same as this one. Many South Africans pursuing justice suffer at the hands of police incompetency, missing dockets and delayed court hearings. But what did the public nature of the trial show us?

Ruth Hopkins of Wits Justice Project suggested: “The trial has revealed a level of quality of the legal process that the criminal justice system is capable of producing, when a defendant with ample financial resources is on trial and the glaring spotlight of the world’s media is focused on court officials.”

In his ruling, Judge Mlambo acknowledged the fact that South Africans don’t have equal access to information and services. This inequality denies people any form of capital—finance, skills, education, land and social capital included. Arguably, the live streaming of events such as this could come in handy in bridging geographical barriers to information.

Yet according to Memeburn, a social media tracker, 85% of discussions about the Oscar Pistorius trial happened on Twitter. Media workers gave blow by blow accounts of court proceedings, “tweet by tweet”, while the rest of the public retweeted, reacted, and asked questions.

Complex Legal Issues Analysed and Clarified

The dedicated Oscar Pistorius trial channel kept people glued to their TV sets and handsets. The channel aired documentaries about Oscar (his childhood, road to international stardom and murder charge), Reeva Steenkamp (her childhood, modelling career and last days), families, friends and doctors, as well as the legal teams for both the defence and prosecution.

The station kept its promise to inform and educate the masses through these live feeds by hosting panels composed of retired magistrates, legal experts, social media analysts, local and foreign forensic experts, medical experts, police consultants and social commentators, breaking down jargon into consumable chunks.

Using the Facebook poll app, Star Social, the channel engaged the audience by asking them questions related to matters that arose in court such as, “Has being able to see and hear what is happening in court improved your understanding of our country’s justice system?” and “Do you understand privacy laws around use of photographs on social media and in the public domain?”.

The integration of social media technologies in the manner displayed by the Oscar Trial channel proved the power of social media to overcome technological barriers. Anyone, from anywhere in the country could access court proceedings and ask questions. Legal consultants like David Dadic and Emma Sadleir, who formed part of the Oscar channel panels, answered questions in regards to legal terms and topics argued in court through their Twitter handles.

Takeaway for “Joe Public”

Twitter and Facebook was abuzz as various media houses and their journalists displayed superior social technology skills. But, what did the general public get?  

Average South Africans who paid attention to the trial would concur that the live broadcast of the trial left a knowledge legacy. The nation is now more acquainted with the judicial system, criminal law and court proceedings. This has given ordinary citizens the power to defend and protect themselves and raise their heads when they feel their constitutional rights are trampled upon. Again, the trial showed that the quality of legal representatives and witnesses is crucial to ensure that one gets a fair trial—just what Judge Mlambo hoped the live broadcast of the trial would reveal.

This trial will soon end, but cases about women abuse, gun violence, and domestic violence will continue to surface. Using social media as a platform to discuss these issues could bridge geographical and technological barriers to justice against violence.

But what South Africans hope for is the transparency, professionalism and quality legal process the high court exhibited to the world through the Oscar trial to linger on.


Emelia Mosima is a Freelance Writer and regularly blogs at The Online Writing Business


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Emelia Mosima

Emelia Mosima is a Freelance Writer and regularly blogs at The Online Writing Business

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