Balancing victim’s interests and an open judiciary – a look at the Omotoso trial

100 cases of sexual violence are reported every day in South Africa. Hundreds more remain unreported. This week, the trial of Timothy Omotoso, accused of rape, has been broadcast on live television. This is the first rape trial to be broadcast and has attracted widespread attention and criticism. Those who support the decision to broadcast the trial argue that it allows people to engage with the judiciary and understand more about the legal system. Those who oppose it have pointed to the aggressive cross-examination of Cheryl Zondi and the potential damage to campaigns to end gender-based violence.

PUBLIC TRIALS AND POPULAR ENGAGEMENT

The dramatic Oscar Pistorius case was the first to be publicly broadcast in South Africa. The argument in favour was simple. Courts are an important institution for the public, accessible to all in most cases. The broadcasting of the trial allows for more people to engage with their judiciary by tuning in to the coverage.

Every defendant must have access an lawyer. Good lawyers conducts vigorous, sometimes aggressive cross-examination. Those who defend the decision to broadcast the case, argue that counsel for the defence simply trying to give his client adequate representation.

PROTECTING VICTIMS AND WITNESSES

Critics of the decision have been quick to point to the many differences between Pistorius and Omotos. Most significantly, they argue that broadcasting the trial damages the rights of the victims and witnesses. Despite choosing to be part of the trial, witnesses must always be afforded a degree of privacy. Broadcasting the trial and allowing Omotoso’s lawyer to discredit and undermine a traumatic experience can be dangerous. The actions of Omotoso’s lawyer, are humiliating and can end up undermining the dignity of Cheryl Zondi, something that all victims deserve.

If women believe that they will be publicly humiliated if they try to take the stand, years of progress on gender-based violence will be undone. With hundreds of unreported cases daily, and a low conviction rate for sexual violence, South Africa cannot take such a risk. Blocking the broadcast of trials where highly personal, intimate details may be revealed may be a necessary step, despite their value for public interest.

BALANCED INTERESTS

Omotoso’s lawyer received extensive criticism. On social media, thousands have voiced their support for Cheryl Zondi, expressing concerns at the way she was interrogated. In this specific case, it seems that efforts to combat gender-based violence have only been strengthened. Looking forward, however, the South African judiciary must ask itself difficult questions about how to balance victim’s rights and the public interest for an open judiciary.

Marwin Ramos

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