DON’T be deceived: given the constraints of enforced brevity, covering a court case via Twitter can be extremely difficult and stressful.
Among other problems you risk reducing the hearing to a series of soundbites. And even if you get the quotes down accurately, having just 140 characters to play with means you probably won’t have space left to explain the context.
Of course some cases are easier to tweet than others. Some reporters manage brilliantly despite the difficulties. And some are lucky enough that they don’t have to write a longer piece afterwards.
It’s impossible to Tweet or post to Facebook at the same time as taking notes. And if you aren’t taking notes of what is going on, or at least listening intently in case something happens that you should be noting, then you could miss the quote of the day, or a development that should be reported.
Every tweet represents time and attention away from capturing information you will need when you get back to the computer and must start writing an accurate, detailed report of what happened.
Against that background I was amazed when I read a decision published last week by the Judicial Service Commission. Its judicial conduct committee had investigated complaints lodged with the JSC, alleging improper behaviour by Judge Jeanette Traverso, deputy judge president of the Western Cape.
The complaints, brought by two different organisations, dealt with the judge’s handling of the criminal trial of Shrien Dewani, accused of organising the murder of his new bride, Anni, while they were on honeymoon in Cape Town.
At the end of the state’s case, Dewani was acquitted – he never gave evidence, or had to subject his version of what happened to cross-examination.
Aggrieved by the course of the trial, two organisations complained Traverso was ‘blatantly biased’ and otherwise guilty of various misconduct in the way she handled the case.
One organisation was called Justice4Anni; the other is the Higher Education Transformation Network.
The judicial conduct committee, consisting of North West Judge President Monica Leeuw and Free State Judge President Mahube Molemela, found there were no grounds at all for the complaint from either organisation. In fact the insultingly-worded complaint about Judge Traverso lodged by the Higher Education Transformation Network’s Lucky Thekiso, was racially motivated, completely unwarranted and infringed the judge’s rights to dignity and respect, the two judges president concluded.
In principle judges and their decisions may well be the legitimate subjects of analysis and criticism. But if you are going to risk a public challenge you have to get your facts correct: that’s only fair and besides you’ll look very stupid if your facts are wrong.
In this case the ‘facts’ on which the organisations relied, at least for their allegations of misconduct in the running of the trial, came largely from Twitter, Facebook, news sites and “briefings from individuals who were in attendance at the court hearings”.
Eish! How is it that people seriously believe you can get everything you need to know about a case and whether it was handled fairly, from tweets, Facebook, newscasts and people hanging out in the public gallery?
You’d have thought that the extensive broadcasting of the Oscar Pistorius trial would have illustrated just how complex trials can be and that experts are often needed to interpret what happens in court for people who aren’t well versed in legal procedure.
Yet when the two organisations brought their complaints, they don’t seem to have done their basic homework, or even asked for legal advice about their take on what happened in court.
In the Dewani case the state was represented by experienced counsel, as was Dewani himself, while Judge Traverso sat with two assessors to hear the matter. The significance of this? – if the presiding judge had indeed behaved in a way that was improper, any one of these role players could have complained.
Quite the opposite, however. All of them wrote to the JSC saying that there had been nothing untoward about the judge’s handling of the trial.
You could say that the complaints represent ordinary people, outraged by a terrible crime, exercising their democratic right to free speech.
You could also see the complaints as ill-advised and worse, in that they infringed the rights of the judge concerned by baseless claims of misconduct. Was that exercise good for the judiciary? Was it even good for democracy to slag off a judge, with no basis in fact? I have my doubts.

Full text of decision here: Decision on complaints against DJP Traverso (2)