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  • 12 March 2014, 7:08

Pistorius Trial: Justice System In View

It is far from over yet, but the televised murder trial of Oscar Pistorius is already having an impact in South Africa on the way people view the criminal justice system.

Alongside the stream of speculation on social media as to the athlete's guilt or innocence, there has been much comment on the rigours of being a witness. 

The simple civic duty of coming forward to offer evidence in a court case is no longer looking quite as straightforward as many thought. 

Millions in the country have watched as successive prosecution witnesses have been subjected to bruising cross examinations, calling into question their reliability and even their honesty. 

The ordeal of two of Pistorius' neighbours - who already made it clear they were "private people" giving evidence reluctantly - prompted near universal dismay. 

First, Michelle Burger was reduced to tears by the defence advocate as he repeatedly challenged her account of what she heard on the night Reeva Steenkamp was shot dead. 

Then it emerged that her photo had been shown on local television in violation of her request that only her voice would be broadcast. 

Her husband, Charl Johnson, had to suffer the consequences of his phone number being read out in court - and broadcast live on television - resulting in several abusive calls.

Both incidents left many South Africans wondering why the witnesses were not better protected by the court. 

The fierce approach of defence advocate Barry Roux, who has now picked apart almost a dozen witnesses' testimony word by word, has been the subject of plenty of concern and even jokes on Facebook and Twitter. 

"My car was stolen yesterday," one South African tweeted.

"But then I spoke to Barry Roux and I'm not so sure," he added. 

South Africans - most of whom have never sat in the public gallery of a courtroom - are watching for the first time the rough, adversarial nature of a criminal trial.

Journalist Philip De Wett, writing in the local Mail and Guardian newspaper, pointed out that witnesses "being thrown to the wolves" is not new in South Africa.

He interviewed several other members of the public who had given evidence for the prosecution in previous cases and found the experience deeply upsetting and damaging for both themselves and their families.

De Wett's conclusion was that the Pistorius trial - unprecedented for being televised - is far from unique in its tough treatment of witnesses.

But it is hard to see how more can be done to ease the process of taking the stand, particularly as much of the impact on the witnesses is beyond the control of the court. 

As well as all the tweets expressing concern about their treatment, there are plenty questioning their character and declaring their evidence "lies".  

The witnesses' names and their lives are suddenly in the public domain whether or not their faces are shown on the court cameras. 

The positive impact of "open justice" in the televised Pistorius trial might, perhaps, come with a downside: an increased reluctance of witnesses to come forward in other cases in future, now they know exactly what is involved.  

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