Press freedoms around the world in 2010
By Byron T. Scott Posted Feb 12 2011
Is press freedom in Mongolia really the same as in the Dominican Republic?
Should Russia get angry for being ranked with the Gambian press and below that of Congo and Yemen?
How could the United States be only 24th among the nations of the world?
Every spring for the past 30 years, and every fall for the past nine, newspapers and broadcasts—and now websites and blogs—focus on where an individual nation stands in the two best-known free-press rankings: the younger emanating from Paris’ Reporters Without Borders and the elder from New York’s Freedom House.
Politicians in the Singapore parliament and the Russian Duma were among those roaring protests when their nations’ rankings fell in recent Freedom House assessments. Unrealistic, mysterious and arbitrary, they argued. Not guilty on all charges if you look at the facts.
In reality, free-press rankings have much in common with football polls: they are a great source for argument, but few of the debaters, in pubs or parliaments, seem to care how the conclusions are reached. We just want to know who’s number one. Then we want to argue about the results.
When Freedom House, Reporters Without Borders or other advocacy groups splash their annual results, it passes the background about free-press rankings to audiences. But headlines continue to reflect a focus on “where we stand.”
Here are a few facts and reporting tips:
- The polls are based on events, observations and facts. They begin with expert reports—primarily from journalists, but also academics, NGO professionals and others—then they are turned into numbers. These “nominal scales” are an attempt to objectively characterize the situation by using predetermined criteria or variables.
- There is no universal, detailed definition of press freedom, though Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the accepted worldwide foundation. As a result, there is no standard measurement. Every advocacy organization concentrates on different things—Freedom House on human rights; Reporters Without Borders on journalists’ rights.
- The numbers themselves make more sense when you know both the criteria and what they mean. In free-press rankings, a low score wins. Ties can’t be broken and remain until next year. Freedom House works on a 100-point scale: 0-30 means a nation’s press is Free; 31-60 is Partly Free; 61 and higher is Not Free. Reporters Without Borders does not make such division, preferring to use only the generated scores, often giving half points as well.
- Understanding how the rankings are reached helps journalists evaluate their meaning. Freedom House has done it longer than anyone else. It uses a methodology that starts with factual reports from 196 countries and territories. Regional experts translate the results into point-system scores responding to 23 methodology questions and 109 indicators that characterize the political, legal and economic environments. On a winter day, usually in March, review advisers meet in regional groups to argue the accuracy and comparability of the individual scores. Then, the Freedom House staff puts together the final rankings. Expect the report each year on Press Freedom Day, May 3.
- The Reporters Without Borders Index evaluated 178 countries in 2010, though growing in number each year, and works on a September-September calendar. So the events surveyed are different. About 140 correspondents from 15 affiliated free-expression groups worldwide respond to 43 specific questions, relating to how reporters work and the dangers they face. An important recent questionnaire addition relates to self-censorship pressures. They also write detailed reports and have them reviewed before the ratings are released.
- The questions and methodologies are available on the websites of both Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders, as are the final reports for each nation. Not simple, but neither mysterious nor secret.
- Reading the reports from your nation, plus those in the region, will tell you more than the rankings themselves. The reports tell you why.
- My bias is that scores between bordering nations, within a region or across a continent are more meaningful than the global rankings. Press freedom is a worldwide democratic value, but history, cultural values and other factors tend to complicate comparisons.
- Compare reports and rankings over several years. Reporters Without Borders’ scores tend to respond more dramatically to violations of journalists’ rights and safety. In celebration of the 30th anniversary of its Freedom of the Press studies, Freedom House has added a feature to its website that shows trend lines and comparisons over three decades.
- Don’t forget the artwork. These surveys are accompanied by downloadable charts, graphs and photos, all in full-color. Both Reporters Without Borders and Freedom House have color-coded maps of press freedom in the world.
- When reporting the rankings, don’t forget that other press-advocacy groups do their own lists and reports. They customarily cooperate with Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders and like to provide their own perspectives. There are about a hundred such organizations around, most of them regional.
- Similarly respected as instruments of policy-making and advocacy are the annual reports of press freedom by a variety of international organizations based in the United States (Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press), England (Article 19, International Pen), Austria (International Press Institute), Belgium (International Federation of Journalists) and elsewhere.
Free-press studies, however generated, remain important stories. For many Western governments, the idea of generating numbers and rankings is an attractive way to measure things—even a value as elusive as free speech. Journalists who report the results with depth and perspective, instead of as a horse race, do their colleagues a favor.
Still, it’s difficult to write about these ranking without slipping into a sports writer’s formula.
So, who won and who lost this year? In Freedom House’s 2010 ratings, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden tied for the coveted lowest score, a 10. Once again, North Korea was last, with a press oppressor’s 99.
Reporters Without Borders gave a perfect rating to the Netherlands and Switzerland, and to the same four nations as Freedom House, making a six-way tie at the top. Headlines in all those nations declared themselves winners. At the bottom of the index, Eritrea (105) edged out North Korea (104.5).