n South African Journal on Human Rights - The sins of the media : the decision and the erosion of free press rights




In , the Constitutional Court of South Africa dismissed an appeal against a decision of the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) denying the national public broadcaster the opportunity to record and broadcast proceedings of a five-day criminal appeal. The majority of the Court held that the SCA's exercise of discretion (including the formulation of a legal test) could only be interfered with if it was a 'demonstrable blunder.' Not only did the majority fail to appreciate that, for sound constitutional reasons, no deference ought to be due to the SCA's decision, it granted more than the usual deference by making use of a novel 'demonstrable blunder' standard. Though some of the possible reasons underlying the majority's use of this new form of appellate review (including a fear that full media access might trivialise the court processes) may have been understandable, such reasons were either legally irrelevant or untenable. The decision is part of a trend whereby the courts and the legislature, often dismayed by incidents of apparent unprofessional conduct by the media, have progressively eroded the constitutional right to a free press. This disquieting trend is based on a misunderstanding of the role of a free press in a constitutional democracy and could ultimately serve to exacerbate any lack of adequate press coverage of the government and the judiciary. Nevertheless, a proper understanding of the 'open justice principle,' recognised by the Constitutional Court in as a constitutional imperative, represents a potential solution to the observed diminution of free press rights.


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