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EDITIONS
Tuesday, 3 December, 2002, 02:26 GMT
Court reporting, Colombian style
(from left) Niall Connolly, James Monaghan and Martin McCauley
The three men refused to attend the trial opening

It was a sight you will not see in any British or Irish court.

As the trial of the three Irishmen finally began, the fairly small courtroom was jam-packed, not just with reporters, but television and newspaper cameras.

Flashguns were going off, microphones being placed into the well of court, cables being run.


He (the judge) called a short adjournment... when a journalist, fluent in both Spanish and English, asked him a question from the back of the court!

The presiding judge, Jairo Acosta, who specialises in anti-terrorist and drug cases, had some time ago allowed not just the scribbling hacks in, but the whole paraphernalia of modern news media as well, to record proceedings.

The judge sits without a jury; and to add to the oddity of it all, the three accused were not there - a protest at their conditions in jail, and at how the case is being handled.

OK, there might be cameras in British courts one day - but I saw something in Bogota I just know I will never see there.

Acosta accosted

Mr Acosta had made a ruling in his opening remarks that none of the evidence of the witnesses was to be reported until the end of the "hearing" - the translator's words, provided because of the interest of the English speaking-media.

He called a short adjournment and was about to stand up, when a journalist, fluent in both Spanish and English, asked him a question from the back of the court!

That, folks, is the equivalent of breaking wind in church, would certainly earn a stinging rebuke (nobody does that better than judges) and might even land you with a contempt of court charge at home.

Gagging order

What she asked, though, turned out to be very important.

She had requested him to clarify his ruling on reporting.

He said that there was to be no reporting in Colombia of the witness evidence until the end of the trial - probably well into next year.


In what I like to think has been a long and varied career, that was as strange a day as journalism can send you

Now that is some gagging order.

And it had an effect on my reporting. The BBC World Service, and BBC World television can be heard and seen in Colombia.

I watched my own report on the opening of the trial on BBC World in our hotel.

Differing reports

The first witness was a major in Colombian Army Intelligence, which had been announced in the judge's opening statement - a fact not subject to the evidence stricture.

For BBC One and Radio 4, both domestic outlets, I could report what he told the court.

But I had to amend both the World television and radio reports with the following: "... because this report might be seen in Colombia, I can tell you that the first witness was a major in Colombian Army Intelligence, but I'm not allowed to tell you what he told the court".

The judge said his reason for the order was that he did not want the accused to know the evidence - presumably because if they did not want to turn up, then they were not entitled to hear it.

And in what I like to think has been a long and varied career, that was as strange a day as journalism can send you.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Denis Murray
"A lot of people around the world want to hear the facts of this case"
Catriona Ruane of the defendants' legal team
"They feel it is impossible for them to get a fair trial"
See also:

28 Nov 02 | N Ireland
13 Jun 02 | N Ireland
07 Jan 02 | Americas
16 Oct 02 | N Ireland
04 Oct 02 | N Ireland
23 Apr 02 | N Ireland
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