Home News Local journalists lauded for extensive law reporting

Local journalists lauded for extensive law reporting

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Local journalists were gobsmacked at the various challenges and life-threatening dangers two DFA reporters had encountered during the course of their careers.

Kimberley journalists attend the Wits Justice Project workshop that was held in the city. Picture: Soraya Crowie

AS THE Wits Justice Project conducted its 8th national workshop, which is aimed at equipping journalists with the knowledge and pointers on the operations of a courtroom, local journalists were gobsmacked at the various challenges and life-threatening dangers two DFA reporters had encountered during the course of their careers.

The two multi-media journalists, Sandi Kwon Hoo and Soraya Crowie, shared some of their experiences and encounters they have had in order to deliver factual and balanced news reports to the public.

The Wits Justice Project has been running workshops across the country and shared some insights with local Kimberley journalists attached to various media houses on some of the constraints facing journalists when they need to report on court cases.

The head of the Wits Justice Programme at the Wits Centre for Journalism, Dr Nachama Brodie, and former Star and DFA editor Kevin Ritchie gave some tips to journalists on how to address some of the challenges they might face inside and outside courtrooms.

Brodie said the workshop aims to empower journalists as well as educate them on the legal dynamics of court reporting.

“This programme is aimed at educating upcoming journalists about the legal side of their news stories. It is also beneficial for journalists who have been in the field and might not have any knowledge of court reporting.

“Many journalists have to write court news stories, but some do not know who are the role-players inside the courtroom. Some do not know who is the magistrate and what duties that person possesses, nor who is the prosecutor or the lawyer inside the courtroom.

“It is important that journalists know the role-players, as well as how the courts operate, as they have the duty to inform the public on these processes through the stories they cover. If a journalist has no knowledge of the processes, how will they be able to educate the public?

“However, if journalists are well informed about the operations of the court system and what information journalists are allowed to secure, it makes their work easier and they are able to report accurately and truthfully to the public. The public will have a better understanding of what it means when a case is postponed or it is scrapped from the court roll,” said Brodie.

She added that the pressure on journalists is not just limited to truthful and accurate reporting.

“The legal fraternity is not always welcoming to journalists. Some courtrooms make it difficult for journalists to acquire information on certain news stories. Each courtroom differs from the next.

“One finds instances where journalists have a good relationship with lawyers and prosecutors, including magistrates or even judges. That makes access to information easier. It also cancels out any misinterpretation of matters by journalists.

“However, there are also courtrooms where journalists are not trusted by lawyers or those in the legal industry. That makes reporting challenging for journalists as they might be barred from accessing information.

“Through this programme, we also want to inform journalists that they do have certain rights when they are covering a court case.”

Brodie added that the dynamics of the media industry is also a silent challenge journalists have to daily overcome.

“Most journalists are still committed to sourcing and reporting on accurate information. Securing some information requires investigation. However, many journalists currently are subjected to working under conditions where they are forced to produce much copy with very little resources at their disposal.

“Journalists are expected to conduct several other duties before they even focus or investigate the accuracy of a story. Despite this, there are still journalists who maintain their journalistic values when reporting on news stories,” Brodie said.

Kwon Hoo, a seasoned journalist at the DFA for the past 22 years, indicated that the workshop would have been very beneficial to her during the start of her career.

“I would have loved to have this information decades ago. I have learned about the operations as well as the different role-players inside the courtroom by trial and error. There were several instances during the start of my career where my former news editor would instruct me to go to court and ‘find a story’.

“Back then I had no idea who to ask. I would spend hours at court and peruse the court rolls, which were mounted on the doors of the courtroom. I did not know the roles of the magistrate’s court, the regional court or even the high court. As I repeatedly went to court, people became familiar with my presence and I managed to strike up relationships with several court employees, from the court centre employees to the lawyers and prosecutors,” she said.

Kwon Hoo added that the journey has not been a walk in the park.

“At the DFA we always follow a story from start to finish. If you broke a crime story, like a murder and someone was arrested, you know the next story will be the suspect’s court appearance. You follow the story from the first court appearance to the bail application, the court trial, and the verdict of the case and then in the end you cover the sentencing. This process takes many years and several court appearances.

“I have had instances where suspects accused of a crime would threaten me verbally and even physically when I reported on their court appearances. In some instances, it was not only the suspects who were angered by my presence in court, but lawyers would bring court applications requesting the court to bar me from the courtroom or even reporting on a court story.

“Luckily I have over the years learned that the public interest plays a vital role in court cases and that I at times was acting in the interest of the public by informing them about the progress of a court matter. It also serves as an indication that the court is doing its duties when it delivers verdicts and sentences,” said Kwon Hoo.

Crowie, who has been a photographer at the DFA for over a decade, shared the same sentiments.

“As journalists, we are at times the least liked people inside the courtroom. What is also challenging is that one cannot always predict the outcome of a court case. I have had times where I took a picture of an accused person and they got very volatile and made several threats against me. Then, as one is listening to the case, you hear that charges against that accused have been scrapped.

“At times you have to sit next to the family and friends of the accused person who will make vile utterances. As a journalist, you are expected to be professional and act as if these threats do not affect you.

“At times, employees in the legal fraternity also want to remove you from court. It is vital that journalists familiarise themselves with the operations of the courtroom in order to also know who they can approach should they have a grievance. There are court managers journalists can approach if they want to lay a complaint against an employee of the courts. If you are not equipped with that knowledge, many news stories will die silently,” said Crowie.

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