Reporters Without Borders has helped to alert the public to press freedom violations around the world. Like other human rights groups, it does important work in documenting abuses and keeping the issue of freedom of expression on the agenda. However, its annual Press Freedom Index – for which it is best known – is less credible. Below is RSF’s description of its methodology, with my comments inserted in red. – Cherian George
To see the questionnaire, click here.
Worldwide Press Freedom Index 2009: How the index was compiled
Paris, 20 October 2009
The Reporters Without Borders index measures the state of press freedom in the world. It reflects the degree of freedom that journalists and news organisations enjoy in each country, and the efforts made by the authorities to respect and ensure respect for this freedom.
A score and a position is assigned to each country in the final ranking. They are complementary indicators that together assess the state of press freedom. A country can change position from year to year even if its score stays the same, and viceversa.
This ranking reflects the situation during a specific period. It is based solely on events between 1 September 2008 and 1 September 2009. It does not look at human rights violations in general, just press freedom violations.
To compile this index, Reporters Without Borders prepared a questionnaire with 40 criteria that assess the state of press freedom in each country. It includes every kind of violation directly affecting journalists (such as murders, imprisonment, physical attacks and threats) and news media (censorship, confiscation of newspaper issues, searches and harassment). Ánd it includes the degree of impunity enjoyed by those responsible for these press freedom violations.
It also measures the level of self-censorship in each country and the ability of the media to investigate and criticise. Financial pressure, which is increasingly common, is also assessed and incorporated into the final score. The questionnaire takes account of the legal framework for the media (including penalties for press offences, the existence of a state monopoly for certain kinds of media and how the media are regulated) and the level of independence of the public media. It also reflects violations of the free flow of information on the Internet.
Reporters Without Borders has taken account not only of abuses attributable to the state, but also those by armed militias, clandestine organisations and pressure groups.
Comment: The above are suitably broad criteria, in keeping with most monitors’ approaches. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, for example, uses a similarly broad interpretation. In contrast, the American First Amendment tradition is relatively blind to censorship exercised by the private sector.
The questionnaire was sent to Reporters Without Borders’ partner organisations (15 freedom of expression groups in all five continents), to its network of 130 correspondents around the world, and to journalists, researchers, jurists and human rights activists.
Comment: The above approach is problematic, because there is no guarantee that the different respondents in different regions are applying the same standards when they answer the more subjective questions in the questionnaire.
A scale devised by the organisation was then used to give a country score to each questionnaire.
Comment: RSF does not reveal how it arrives at this “scale”. There is no single, objective way to aggregate different press freedom indicators into a single index. Value judgments have to be made. For example, how to score “being tortured or ill-treated” (Question 2) relative to whether there is “a state monopoly of TV” (Question 17). The fact that value judgments need to be made doesn’t mean that an index should not or cannot be compiled – but it does mean that the organisation should be transparent about how it does so.
The 175 countries ranked are those for which Reporters Without Borders received completed questionnaires from a number of independent sources. Some countries were not included because of a lack of reliable, confirmed data. Where countries tied, they are listed in alphabetical order.
The index should in no way be taken as an indication of the quality of the press in the countries concerned.
To download the original PDF version from the RSF site, click here.