Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Shrien Dewani and Jacob Zuma: two takes on trial by media

The majority of people with an opinion on the subject evidently decided for themselves that Shrien Dewani is guilty of murdering his wife on holiday in South Africa; those with no view are generally not much interested either way.

Mr Dewani’s family and close friends insisted he is grief-stricken and cannot be guilty, while the open-minded in SA and in the UK became increasingly baffled by all the claims and counterclaims. They want Mr Dewani to return to SA and face the music. If he is innocent all will be well; he must take the rap if he is not.

Is it really as simple as that?

Not so long ago, most of SA made up its mind that president-in-waiting Jacob Zuma was or was not guilty of corruption, by association with his former friend, benefactor and financial adviser Mr Schabir Shaik. Mr Shaik was found guilty of the charge and briefly imprisoned.

People did not need to know the law, follow a trial or hear out all the evidence and a judge’s detailed verdict to reach their decision. They decided according to whether they liked or disliked Mr Zuma and his alleged politics. They decided on the basis of stories and innuendoes in the newspapers and from the conclusions they freely drew from all the gossip and mud-slinging.

Such is democracy. Who would have it any other way? How can it be any other way?

To check the rush to judgement where it went against their interests, President Zuma’s friends and political supporters launched a counterattack. Their policy was to repeat, until everyone was tired of hearing it, that in the new SA everyone is innocent until proven guilty. Remember the campaign? It caught on. It led to newspapers getting the blame. There were endless denunciations of ‘trial by media’, as if the media were somehow conjuring the entire drama out of thin air. The public was prepared, the context carefully created, for a legal loophole to be found.

Mr Schrien Dewani cannot match the influence President Zuma was able to bring to bear to avoid trial. He is not a candidate for the presidency, a high-up in the ANC, or even a South African citizen.

But he has one advantage. He could afford to hire the well-known UK public relations consultant Mr Max Clifford, along with top legal advice. And it finally dawned on the authorities here that the plan from the outset was to suggest by every means possible that Mr Dewani will not get a fair trial in South Africa, or is in no condition to face one even if he did.

Whether either was true was not the issue. The issue was could Mr Clifford and the lawyers make the idea stick? Could sufficient objections be found, enough seeds of doubt sown, to prevent their client’s extradition?

Mr Clifford did his job and, though we may not like the job or Mr Clifford, he did not do badly for his client.

Of course, he received every help from his opponents. Early on, the alarmingly titled head of SA’s civil police ‘General’ Cele - whose job specification, one liked to hope at the time, covered arresting suspects but not pronouncing them guilty in advance - informed the world that Mr Dewani was a 'monkey come to SA to murder his wife'.

As if that were not enough, Judge John Hlope - of all judges - took the stage as another PR gift to Mr Dewani's supporters. Shadowed by a list of controversies over his own professional conduct, Judge Hlope sentenced Zola Tongo, Mr Dewani’s taxi driver on the night of the murder, to prison for 18 years.

SA journalist Michael Trapido dealt with this in an article titled, ‘Hlope can’t preside but Dewani would get a fair trial'. He explained that Judge Hlope was legally ineligible to preside over any further trial in the case - including a trial in future of Shrien Dewani in SA. But didn't Mr Dewani now appear quite definitely guilty by association? And, if he did, what had that to do with the media?

The extradition process drags on in the UK, leaving us to ponder if there is any such thing as the 'trial by media' politicians complain about. 

After all, no politician is heard to say Mr Dewani is innocent until proven guilty - suggesting once again that newspapers are the way they are because people are the way they are.

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