William H. Neukom: Without a free press, the rights of people fade

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World Press Freedom Day. Photo / Supplied
World Press Freedom Day. Photo / Supplied

A responsible press which is free from restrictive laws, free from fear of harassment, and free from violent persecution serves a crucial watchdog role, holding government, civil society, and the private sector accountable for their actions.

A free press is necessary for government transparency and access to information, two pillars of the rule of law. Without a free press, the rule of law withers.

The rule of law is so important because it is the foundation for communities of opportunity and equity - the kind of community everyone wants. How do we know when a society is operating under the rule of law? It's a society in which governments are held accountable; laws are fair and protect fundamental rights; laws are enforced efficiently and fairly; and access to justice is provided by competent and ethical representatives and neutrals.

We face a worldwide deficit in the rule of law. This deficit undermines efforts to make societies safe, lift people from poverty, build economic prosperity, reduce corruption, improve public health, and enhance education.

Without the rule of law, medicines do not reach health facilities because of corruption; women in rural areas remain unaware of their rights; people are killed in criminal violence; and business costs increase because of expropriation risk.

A free press advances the rule of law through reporting that educates the public about their rights, responsibilities, and the rule of law, while providing a platform for responsible citizenship.

The rule of law ensures the political, economic and legal environment necessary for a free press. It provides a legal and fair status for the media and individual journalists based on international standards and guarantees independence from improper influence. It also helps protect journalists reporting on such issues as organised crime or corruption from becoming targets of harassment and violent persecution from public officials, terrorists, and criminals.

The World Justice Project, an independent, non-profit organisation to advance the rule of law, recognises the importance of a free press. The WJP Rule of Law Index® is a quantitative assessment tool that offers a detailed and comprehensive picture of the extent to which countries adhere to the rule of law in practice, including a country's press freedom. WJP works with partners around the globe to ensure freedom of the press and access to information - in addition to all other facets of the rule of law - to improve justice and fairness.

A core belief is that the rule of law matters to all members of society. The rule of law undergirds commerce, health, education, the arts - and the press. The rule of law is not just important to lawyers and judges; it matters to accountants, builders, consumers, dentists, teachers - and journalists. The World Justice Project works with representatives of all these other fields, bringing together leaders from government, businesses, non-governmental organisations and individuals to understand how the rule of law matters to our everyday lives, and to develop programmes to advance these principles in communities.

Our successful multidisciplinary approach has led to projects that improve the environment and public health in Madagascar, secure land rights for farmers in Haiti, advance the well-being of migrant workers in China, and improve access to justice in the United States. In Namibia, we've worked to ensure that media and citizenry have access to public information in a timely and efficient manner, to enhance citizen participation in governance and improve their capacity to hold the government more accountable. In Peru, our partners have to provide the media with improved environmental information, allowing media to further disseminate environmental issues of concern and build support for stronger environmental protection.

This World Press Freedom Day, the World Justice Project asks everyone to recognise the importance of a free press to ensuring rule of law communities - communities of opportunity and equity - which is of paramount importance to us all.

William H. Neukom is the founder, president, and chief executive of The World Justice Project.

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