LSSA raises concern about election violence, developments at SABC and death of Kenyan human rights lawyer

July 22nd, 2016

Compiled by Barbara Whittle

Late in June and early in July the Law Society of South Africa (LSSA) raised its serious concern about election-related violence, developments at the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) and the murder of young Kenyan human rights lawyer, Willie Kimani.

Election violence

In a press release on 22 June following demonstrations and looting in a number of areas in Tshwane, the LSSA urged government and political parties to ensure a safe climate for free and fair local government elections on 3 August.

The LSSA said that members of the public must be able to cast their votes freely without threats of intimidation and violence. Also, although communities must be able to exercise freedom of speech and association, government must urge people to exercise restraint irrespective of their complaints relating to lack of service delivery or differences in political affiliation.

‘The ongoing violent protests that we have witnessed in the media … in the Tshwane area is of major concern. We believe these protests may persists and even intensify between now and the elections date. Threats of violence, as well as allegations that certain parties are not allowed to campaign in certain areas are direct impediments to free and fair elections and to the constitutional right and duty on our citizens to vote freely. The acts of violence also constitute a threat to the rule of law and constitutional democracy in our country. The burning of shops belonging to foreign nationals echoes the xenophobic attacks which left the country bruised and battered not long ago and cannot be tolerated,’ said LSSA Co-chairpersons Mvuso Notyesi and Jan van Rensburg.

They added that for lawyers, protecting the rule of law and constitutional democracy was paramount. They stressed that the LSSA would be fielding its team of attorney election observers across the country on 3 August in order to serve as the independent eyes and ears of the public to record and report on any incidents that may threaten these fundamental rights.

Press freedom

On 28 June the LSSA again expressed its alarm in a press release, this time relating to developments at the SABC, the resignation of Acting Chief Executive Officer, Jimi Matthews, and the fact that senior and respected editors and journalists appeared to be increasingly ventilating their concerns regarding the negative atmosphere in newsrooms. The LSSA urged the SABC Board to create an environment in which journalists can report without fear or favour.

The LSSA said that, like an independent judiciary and an independent legal profession, a free press is a cornerstone of our constitutional democracy. It urged the SABC Board to act decisively to deal with apparent systemic problems and editorial policies that may have led the public broadcaster to the position it is in now. ‘Broadcasters and journalists should report the news, not become the news or self-appointed censors. Once this happens it is simply a shame and contrary to the values of an open and democratic society,’ said LSSA Co-chairpersons Mvuso Notyesi and Jan van Rensburg.

They added: ‘Members of the public are entitled to professional, objective and fair reporting. This can never be compromised, but especially more so during the period leading up to elections. It is not for a broadcaster – especially the national broadcaster – to take upon itself a censorship role and decide what the public may or may not see or hear, and what journalists may or may not report.’

The Co-chairpersons noted that there were press codes that guide reporters, publishers and broadcasters, and if members of the public are dissatisfied with reporting, they have access to the self-regulating Press Council and the Office of the Press Ombud to settle disputes over the editorial content of broadcasts and publications. Ultimately there is also access to the courts. It was, therefore, of paramount importance that the SABC Board should endeavour to create an environment in which journalists can report to the general public without fear or favour.

Murder of Kenyan human rights lawyer

Early in July the LSSA joined the Law Society of Kenya in expressing its shock at the torture and murder of young Kenyan human rights lawyer Willie Kimani, allegedly by members of the Kenyan National Police Service.

‘We extend our condolences to our colleagues in Kenya and join the Law Society of Kenya (LSK) in expressing serious concern at what LSK Chairperson Isaac Okero has described as a dark day for the rule of law in Kenya,’ said LSSA Co-chairpersons Mvuso Notyesi and Jan van Rensburg. They added that the perpetrators should be seen to be dealt with to the full extent of the law.

At that stage it was understood that Mr Kimani, a human rights lawyer with the United States legal aid group International Justice Mission, which deals with cases of police abuse of power – had focused on defending political prisoners and victims of state abuse. Mr Kimani had been defending a client who had accused local police of harassing and intimidating him in a bid to have him withdraw a complaint against a senior officer with the local Administration Police Unit.

Mr Kimani, his client and a taxi driver disappeared on 23 June and their bodies were found more than a week later in a river near Nairobi with signs of severe torture.

Mr Okero had been quoted as saying that the legal profession’s worst fears had been confirmed. Advocates and citizens are at risk of elimination by police death squads. He noted that the rule of law was under a serious threat, where the guardians of the rule of law risk their lives; that every Kenyan should be afraid. He had stressed that failure by those charged with security could not be tolerated.

Although three police officers suspected of being linked to the disappearance of Mr Kimani and his associates were arrested, Kenyan lawyers threatened to strike if senior police officers Inspector-General Joseph Boinnet and Deputy Inspector-General Samuel Arachi, as well as Interior Cabinet Secretary Joseph Nkaissery did not resign over the killings.

Mr Notyesi and Mr Van Rensburg stressed: ‘Lawyers must be able to carry out their professional duties without fear of harassment or other threats. We stress the United Nations Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers, which state that: “Governments shall ensure that lawyers are able to perform all of their professional functions without intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference and that lawyers shall not suffer, or be threatened with, prosecution or administrative, economic or other sanctions for any action taken in accordance with recognised professional duties, standards and ethics”’. They urged the Kenyan government to ensure that all lawyers in their country are treated with the respect and security of person due to them. The Co-chairpersons highlighted the above views in a letter addressed to the Kenyan authorities through the High Commission of the Republic of Kenya in Pretoria.

Compiled by Barbara Whittle, communication manager, Law Society of South Africa,


This article was first published in De Rebus in 2016 (Aug) DR 13.


De Rebus