How reliable are world press freedom indices?

By MARK PEARSON

The recent special edition of Pacific Journalism Review included an article I co-authored with Associate Professor Joseph Fernandez (@DrJM_Fernandez) from Curtin University looking at censorship in Australia.

It was titled “Censorship in Australia: Intrusions into media freedom flying beneath the international free expression radar.”

Part of the article considered the reliability of world press indices collated each year by international organisations like Reporters Without Borders and the Freedom Forum.

Here is a short abridged extract of our article to give you a background to the RSF approach and a sense of our argument:

Two main media freedom indices are cited internationally as indicators of the relative state of press freedom and free expression internationally. They are issued by the Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF – Reporters Without Borders) and by the US-based Freedom House. Each has fine-tuned its rankings system over time and we summarise their methodologies here. The RSF World Press Freedom Index was first published in 2002. On its launch it explained:

The index was drawn up by asking journalists, researchers and legal experts to answer 50 questions about the whole range of press freedom violations (such as murders or arrests of journalists, censorship, pressure, state monopolies in various fields, punishment of press law offences and regulation of the media). The final list includes 139 countries. The others were not included in the absence of reliable information (RSF, 2002a).

It went on to detail its methodology as essentially a qualitative one based on its contacts in each country assessed and its headquarters staff. The index measured the ‘amount of [media] freedom’ in each country and the respective governments’ efforts to observe that freedom (RSF, 2002b). Its questionnaire sought details on: direct attacks on journalists (e.g. murders, imprisonment, physical assaults and threats) and on the media (e.g. censorship, confiscation, searches and other pressure); the degree of impunity enjoyed by those responsible for such violations; the legal environment for the media (e.g. punishment for press offences, state monopoly and existence of a regulatory body); the state’s behavior towards the public media and the foreign press; threats to information flow on the Internet; and the activities of armed movements and other groups that threaten press freedom (ibid).

Clearly, RSF’s emphasis from that early stage was on clear physical threats against journalists and major legal measures taken against the media in the surveyed countries. Australia ranked 12 out of 139 countries ranked in that first survey. New Zealand and other Pacific Island nations were not ranked because of a lack of information collected on them. The following year New Zealand debuted at position 17, while Australia had been demoted to 50 of 166 nations ranked (RSF, 2003).

RSF changed its ranking methodology significantly in 2013, when it ranked Australia at 28 out of 179 countries, and it is that revised approach which will be used for our discussion here about the potential assessment of Australia’s performance. It explained a shift to a new questionnaire and approach, with Paris-based staff quantifying the numbers of journalists killed, jailed, exiled, attacked or arrested, and the number of outlets directly censored (RSF, 2013). Other important criteria formed the basis of questionnaires sent to outside experts and members of the RSF network, including ‘the degree to which news providers censor themselves, government interference in editorial content, or the transparency of government decision-making’. Legislation and its effectiveness, concentration of media ownership, favouritism in subsidies and state advertising and discrimination in access to journalism and training were the subject of more detailed questions (RSF, 2013).

RSF then uses a complex algorithm to assign a score out of 100 to every country, drawing first on six general criteria of pluralism, media independence, environment and self-censorship, legislative framework, transparency and infrastructure; and then factoring in a special ‘violence score’ with a weighting of 20 per cent, calculated using a formula taking account of violence against journalists in the following declining weightings: death of journalists, imprisonments, kidnappings, media outlets attacked and ransacked, journalists who have fled the country, arrests, and attacks (RSF, 2013). An additional co-efficient takes account of respect for freedom of information in a foreign territory. In short, the algorithm strives to add quantitative mathematical rigour to a process that is largely qualitative, with a stronger weighting on acts of violence than upon legislative and systemic anti-media features. The approach incorporates difficult and problematic comparisons of the value of the murder of a journalist vis a vis laws of censorship.

[The article then backgrounds the Freedom House ‘Freedom of the Press’ reports methodology.]

The respective RSF and Freedom House indices are cited internationally in political speeches and academic works (Burgess, 2010, p. 4). For example, Belgian scholar Dirk Voorhoof linked high media freedom rankings with global reputation for human rights protection when he wrote:… the countries with a high level of press freedom, as shown in the international ratings of Reporters without Borders (RSF) or Freedom House, are countries in which democracy, transparency, respect for human rights and the rule of law is strongly rooted, institutionalised and integrated in society (2009).

However, despite assurances from both RSF and Freedom House that their reports and indices were undertaken with independence and rigor, they have come in for criticism from some quarters. For example, Schönfeld (2014) took issue with Russia’s rankings in both indices on the basis of a potential Western bias. She cited rumours that the Freedom House index was sponsored by the US government (p. 99):

The whole questionnaire presumes a comprehensive concept of media freedom, claiming that the media have to be embedded in a democratic society (p. 100).

She raised similar concerns about the RSF index, again citing a rumour that ‘the organisation contents itself with three or four completed questionnaires per country to the same target group’ (p. 100). She drew comparisons between the RSF and Freedom House approaches:

The conformity between these two indices is not astonishing, as the underlying concept of media freedom, methodology, and the target group are nearly the same (Schönfeld, 2014, p. 100).

Burgess (2010) canvassed the academic literature on media freedom indices and found a host of criticisms, including poor survey design, and recommended they ‘should continue to work to increase technical sophistication, validity across time, and transparency of sourcing, wherever possible without creating threats to the security of people who help in compiling them’ (Burgess, 2010, p. 50). Pearson (2012a) offered reasons as to why the RSF index could not be a precise scientific measure.

It could never be, given the enormous variables at stake, and has to rely on an element of expert qualitative judgment when making the final determinations of a country’s comparative ranking. If it was purely quantitative, for example, there would be an in-built bias against the world’s most populous countries because the sheer numbers of journalists and media organisations involved would increase the statistical likelihood media freedom breaches or incidents involving journalists.

Further, the individual rankings of countries in any particular year are subject to the performance of the nations above and below them. In fact, a country might well decline in the real state of its media freedom but be promoted in an index because of the even worse performance of countries ranked above it the year prior. As Burgess noted, however, the indices were cited widely on their release each year and thus represented a useful tool for promoting the value of media freedom internationally (Burgess, 2010, pp. 6-7). Pearson (2012a) stated:

Governments might take issue with the methodology and argue over their precise rankings, but the index draws on the energies and acumen of experts in RSF’s Paris headquarters and throughout the world; and is thus taken seriously in international circles. It serves to raise awareness about media and Internet freedom, which cannot be a bad thing in an age of government spin.

Of course, any press freedom index is really only a continuum because media freedom is not an absolute, scientifically measureable criterion and there is no haven of free expression or press freedom internationally. Indeed, established international instruments reflect the non-absolute nature of free speech. For example, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides that everyone has a right to freedom of expression (Article 19). However, this right is qualified. For example, Article 12 provides that noone no one shall be subjected to attacks upon ‘honour and reputation’. Likewise, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights qualifies the freedom of expression right in Article 19(2), with a provision stipulating that that freedom ‘carries with it special duties. It may therefore be subject to certain restrictions…such as are provided by law and are necessary’.

Interested? Here is the citation for the full article. Order your PJR copy now.


Pearson, M., and Fernandez, J. M. (2015). Censorship in Australia: Intrusions into media freedom flying beneath the international free expression radar. Pacific Journalism Review, 21(1): 40-60.

© Mark Pearson 2015

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

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