Public Protector lauds legal journalists for enhancing access to justice

The news media’s live coverage of court cases that are in the public interest has played an admirable role in enhancing ordinary people’s understanding of court processes, Public Protector Adv. Thuli Madonsela said on Wednesday.

Addressing law firm Webber Wentzel’s 16th annual Legal Journalists Awards ceremony in Johannesburg, the Public Protector said media houses have increasingly been approaching the judiciary with successful requests for live broadcasts of events as they unfold in courtrooms.

She told guests that while courts were an important forum and a pillar of democracy, they remained inherently exclusive to those who had resources and a better understanding of sophisticated legal processes and the language used by lawyers.

Apart from being excluded on the basis of the hefty financial costs associated with litigation, ordinary people were often elbowed to the peripheries as a result of the legalese used in court. The Public Protector said media access to the courts had positive educational spin-offs for many members of the public as court reporters unpacked sophisticated concepts such as the topical Dolus Eventualis principle.

“In the past there was resistance towards live coverage of court proceedings because it was thought that such coverage would undermine court cases and influence proceedings,” she said. “Instead, live coverage of court and law-making processes has enhanced the public’s understanding of these important processes. “

The Public Protector compared the increased public engagement concerning the legalities of the Oscar Pistorius and Marikana cases with the Thiagraj Soobramoney case, which was also of great public interest but did not enjoy comparable public dialogue because it took place at a different time.

She added that comprehensible court reporting enhanced access to justice for ordinary people, explaining that access to justice was not just about one’s physical proximity to a court but also about the proper understanding of legal processes.

Adv. Madonsela further stated that legal journalists had contributed towards ensuring that the role of law was not left to lawyers and law-makers alone.

Turning to the issue of media freedom, the Public Protector said an independent media was essential for a functional democracy, which she defined a dialogue between the state and the people. This dialogue was facilitated by the media.

She said the media helped give effect to the ideal of an open and transparent society while also holding those exercising public power and control over state resources accountable. Adv. Madonsela told the attendants that social media contributed to media diversity and freedom of expression for the poor as it strengthened democracy and provided a platform for addressing injustices not addressed by the courts and political platforms.

The Public Protector said democratic South Africa was doing much better on media freedom than some countries across the world. This was because of the freedom of expression provisions enshrined in the Bill of Rights, in the country’s progressive Constitution.

To drive this point, she quoted statistics from Journalist with Borders referred to by the United Nations on World Press Freedom Day, detailing the problems including murder and arrests of journalists and social media activists globally.

She indicated though that the country is not totally out of the woods. In this regard, the Public Protector mentioned the potential threat of the Protection of the State Information Bill, acknowledging that the President recently assured the media that the version to be proceeded with will not violate the Constitution.

Another red flag the Public Protector raised concerned vicious statements by some politicians, including criminal labelling of journalists who bring to public attention shenanigans within the state.

She reminded the audience that the rights and freedoms under Section 16 of the Constitution, among others, were not absolute and had certain limitations, including that the right to freedom of expression did not extend to hate and discriminatory speech.

The Public Protector concluded by highlighting the importance of the media in promoting an open society and the importance of such society in ensuring public accountability and sustainable democracy.

For more information, contact:
Ms Kgalalelo Masibi
Spokesperson: Public Protector South Africa
Cell: 079 507 0399
Public Protector South Africa

Published Date: 
Thursday, November 5, 2015