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Tuesday, March 4, 2014

OPINION. eNCA apologises for Oscar Pistorius murder trial witness photo - but doesn't actually even have to. Here's why.


eNCA (DStv 403) just apologised for something which I as a journalist, a TV critic, a former news editor, and a media observer truly don't think eNCA needs to apologise for.

The South African 24-hour TV news channel in a statement, says it is apologising for showing a still photo of witness Michelle Burger (not even a photo taken of her in court) in the Oscar Pistorius murderl trial taking place in the North Gauteng High Court.

Witnesses in this sensational murder trial can decide whether they want to be seen on television or not.

However, this surely does not mean that a newspaper or a TV channel or any other publication or media outlet can't show a picture of Michelle Burger that they're able to find somewhere else?

What newspaper is just going to run a headline and a chunk of text if they cannot also add some kind of visual or photo to a story?

Any serious journalist knows you need something to break the text and need something visual to grab more reader or viewer interest. Any anyone's headshot is surely fair use in the reporting of a hard news story.

"This morning during court testimony by state witness Michelle Burger, eNCA showed a still photo of Michelle Burger which was sourced from the University of Pretoria's website. eNCA unreservedly apologises to the court, the parties and Michelle Burger for this unfortunate incident," says eNCA in a statement.

"No disrespect was intended.We did not understand the court order issued by Judge Mlambo to prevent this - we understood it only to apply to pictures taken of witnesses during the court proceedings," says Patrick Conroy, the group head of news at eNCA. "But, on reflection, this was a bad judgment call on our part and we accept that it did not accord with the spirit of the court order".

Judge Thokozile Masipa has now issued a further order that no photos be published of any witnesses who do not want to appear on camera, regardless of the source of those photos.

This is highly unusual, strange, and in my opinion wrong, as it seriously curtails freedom of speech in South Africa.

This is a public court case, with a global interest ... and you're not allowed to show an image - any image - of a witness when you do a story or report on public court testimony? Madness.

Please then possibly switch off the lights inside the court room so that the people who are able to get a seat to see the court proceedings for themselves in person, can please be as blind as lady justice, because currently they are able to see the actual and very public witnesses and how they look.

eNCA says it will "cooperate fully with any inquiry in this regard and deeply regrets the upset caused".

"eNCA has been at the forefront of working with the Judiciary for improved access to the courts," says the news channel.

"We would never consciously undermine our own efforts over the past 10 years. We should have been more cautious and sought clarity first. This has been an important lesson for everyone in terms of communication with the courts and the parties concerned".