A look into the indices of ‘World Press Freedom Day’
May 3, 2021
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by Arabella Seebaluck

World Press Freedom Day observation

World Press Freedom Day is observed each year on 3 May, across the world. It’s an opportunity for journalists and newsrooms across the world to signal their limitations in the spread of verified, responsible and possibly life-enabling information. This is also what seems to be the purport of the world’s self-appointed defenders of press freedom around the world. One of them RSF or Reporters Without Borders.

With the spread of the Covid virus worldwide, disinformation has accrued congruently, RSF says: “journalism, which is arguably the best vaccine against the virus of disinformation, is totally blocked or seriously impeded in 73 countries and constrained in 59 others, which together represent 73% of the countries evaluated.”

The RSF World Press Freedom Index is, since 2002, an endeavour to paint a picture of some of the world’s best and worst practices that foil independent journalism. This year’s report is no different and points out: “The Index data reflect a dramatic deterioration in people’s access to information and an increase in obstacles to news coverage. The coronavirus pandemic has been used as grounds to block journalists’ access to information sources and reporting in the field. Will this access be restored when the pandemic is over? The data shows that journalists are finding it increasingly hard to investigate and report sensitive stories, especially in Asia, the Middle East and Europe.”

While the media watchdog signals discrepancies in access to information, UNESCO’s message this year is ‘Information as a Public Good’. Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO, on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day speaks of “the indisputable importance of verified and reliable information.  It calls attention to the essential role of free and professional journalists in producing and disseminating this information, by tackling misinformation and other harmful content.”

There is another side of the coin, however, with public mistrust in the media also gaining terrain, still according to the media watchdog. “The 2021 Edelman Trust barometer reveals a disturbing level of public mistrust of journalists, with 59% of respondents in 28 countries saying that journalists deliberately try to mislead the public by reporting information they know to be false,” RSF denotes.

RSF overall findings

The RSF World Press Freedom Index places Norway at the top of its ranking, with another 3 Nordic countries – Finland, Sweden and Denmark – following suit. Costa Rica is an interesting 5th, while China is placed 177th on a total of 180 countries ranked.

For Norway and its neighbours, the democracy and free speech framework are near Utopian. Political scrutiny to ensure the 4th estate is in full possession of its powers and faculties is the norm. “A new media responsibility law that has just taken effect is portrayed by the authorities as the most important piece of legislation in years for media editors because it defines their freedoms and responsibilities.” Despite this, the current pandemic has created tensions in the region over access to critical information, including reports but also physical access to hospitals and healthcare providers for documentation gathering.

The curious case of Costa Rica

The case of Costa Rica is an interesting one which stands out in the entire report. It is in stark contrast with the rest of Latin America, where Brazil, El Salvador and Venezuela for example, are signalled for serious press freedom violations. RSF notes Costa Rica is a remarkable exception in a region characterized by corruption, violent crime and constant violence against the media. Journalists are free to work and progressive legislation regulates the freedom to inform. Cases of attacks, threats or other forms of intimidation of journalists are rare, as is state interference in the media’s work, even if access to state-held information is sometimes complicated.”

Media landscape in India

India ranks at 142 out of 180, a grim placement for the world’s largest democracy. The index points to 4 journalists being killed in the line of duty in 2020 and flags attacks and reprisals against members of the media ‘trying to do their job properly’. RSF also comments on the situation in Kashmir, where it claims ‘Orwellian content regulations’ still prevail. India has contested such findings and even appointed an envoy to discuss the claims made by RSF.

RSF on China

In China, cyber-gagging is what is most criticised by the index. “By relying on the extensive use of new technology, President Xi Jinping has succeeded in imposing The Chinese authorities have tightened their grip on news and information even more since the emergence of Covid-19. Seven journalists are still being held for their coverage of the pandemic and more than 450 social media users were briefly arrested for sharing “false rumours” about the virus.”

RSF Index contested

Not everyone thinks the index, or those published by similar organisations such as Freedom House, portray things as they are in the countries surveyed. India, for instance, had its Ambassador to France discuss the findings with RSF last year. A report in The Print reveals: “Discussing the methodology used by the RSF to calculate the press freedom index, [Ambassador] Ashraf said that the Western media only includes a selected set of India experts for every issue, which generates “opinion pieces” in the garb of true reporting. The ambassador told the RSF that its methodology does not take into account the diversity and scale of the mediascape in India. […] India is likely to suggest that in future engagements, the government may ask RSF to disclose the details of its methodology, as well as sources of information where the data used in analysis is taken from, for public access. Another suggestion is expected to be that the RSF should share performance of countries in each of the seven parameters used to calculate the press freedom rank, as against a cumulative indicator for press freedom.”

Other criticism levelled against the organisation pertains to its funding. Two sources which raised eyebrows included the U.S. government as well as Cuba opposition groups. Another contentious point is methodology. RSF, like Freedom House, seems to source a lot of its findings from ‘elite’ media. A study shows that “Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders measures of press freedom are quite similar. Both claim to be measuring that general concept. Both use elite evaluators to obtain their assessments of the media systems…[However] Freedom House has a more institutional focus, looking at constraints on the media, mostly from institutional forces. Reporters Without Borders focuses more heavily on attacks on journalists coming from a variety of sources.”

The truly best vaccine

Analysing the resources behind findings such as RSF’s ‘Best Vaccine Against the Virus of Disinformation’ is equally valid as the watchdogs doing what they believe to be in the world’s best interest. As important as it is to have checks and balances, it is also essential to know who is doing the checking and the balancing. Press freedom today is in dire need of freedom… from interest groups, political influences and colourings of any other kind. If there were to be a true vaccine in these strange times, it would be that where journalists are out there reporting what they can see and can verify from credible sources. And also, that watchdogs would help them do so, by providing real, hands-on tools such as training, information, material and even a mouthpiece for the often-stifled voices to be heard.

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