After October 19, national press freedom day, South Africans now have a second bite at the cherry – even though the taste is not very sweet.

The “cherry” in this case is an opportunity to focus of what happens when freedom of expression is violated.

And the opportunity in turn falls on 2 November, which is the new “International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists” as proclaimed by UN General Assembly last year.

That this day was approved by the world’s governments shows a growing recognition in the UN system that journalists are important. And that attacks on them should not go unpunished.

But before any editorial heads get puffed up with too much pride, let’s also recognize that the issue is not only about journalists as professionals – it’s about society more widely.

In a nutshell, crimes against journalists translate immediately into crimes against the public. Why?

  • When journalists begin work in fear of attack, self-censorship begins to grow in the media more broadly.
  • And when the people see journalists being harmed with impunity, they draw the lesson, which is: it’s more prudent to keep quiet on subjects like abuse or corruption, perhaps even to voice an opinion that someone does not like.
 An injured cameraman is attended to during a firefight between police and gang members near Karachi's Lyari area. Photo: REUTERS/Athar Hussain

An injured cameraman is attended to during a firefight between police and gang members near Karachi’s Lyari area. Photo: REUTERS/Athar Hussain

Society as a whole loses because the circuit of information, vital to everyone’s decision-making, freezes instead of flows.

It’s bad enough that journalists often face abuse, threats and actual harm to themselves and their families. But equally disturbing around the world is that most usually the perpetrators have gone unpunished.

This is what is known as “impunity”, and it means that those who attack journalists do so with the knowledge that they will get away with their actions. And so the attacks persist.

When this happens, it becomes vividly clear to the public at large that the rule of law is a failure.

In summary, when there is impunity for attacks on journalists, society as a whole ends up the victim.

On the contrary, if the criminals were brought to book, everyone – including journalists – would feel safe to speak.

When Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein recently took office as the new UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, he pledged to follow the same path of his predecessor – South African Navi Pillay, whom he described as “one of the greatest senior officials the UN has ever had”.

As Ms Pillay had consistently stressed, he said, there must be accountability for gross violations of human rights.

He stressed that impunity fuels further conflict and abuses, whereas accountability helps to ensure that crimes will not be repeated.

The new High Commissioner was referring generally to violations of human rights in situations of high conflict. But he also specifically noted the case of US journalist James Foley beheaded in Iraq, saying that the barbaric slaughter of a captive, showed the lack of courage of the killers.

His points about impunity apply not only to extreme violations like killings, but also to less dramatic crimes. In the case of crimes against freedom of expression, these include death threats, harassment, abductions and stalking of journalists.

In his remarks, Al Hussein also referred to the world’s emerging Sustainable Development Goals, which will next year replace the 15-year-old Millennium Development Goals. For him, these new goals “need to aim not only for freedom from want – including the rights to health, education, decent work, food, water and sanitation – but equally, freedom from fear.”

Before, during and after Impunity Day on 2 November, the world has an opportunity to demand freedom from fear, and the security of knowing that crimes will be punished.

As South Africans know very well, impunity and crime go much wider than attacks on journalists. But because journalists are in the public eye, what happens to them sends signals to society more broadly.

And if justice is seen to be done in regard to the perpetrators who violate the right of journalists to use their freedom of expression, this also tells all criminals that there will be consequences for their crimes.

This is why on 2 November, it is important that everyone stands up in favour of free expression. The message must go out that this fundamental right should be protected so that it can be enjoyed by all.

Those who are responsible for this protection, namely the state and its officials, need to hear loudly that all efforts should be made to investigate promptly, independently and effectively any attacks on free expression, and especially attacks on journalists.

Most of all, journalists themselves should see Impunity Day as an opportunity. It is a time to signal when and how they have been attacked.

It is a chance to sensitise the public about why press freedom is something to be cherished by all who believe we should be both free to speak and free of crime.

In this way, and over time, the bitterness of unpunished attacks on free speech can evolve from a day of protest to one of celebrating a society in which everyone is indeed safe to speak.