Under pressure from their financial backers, press freedom NGOs continue to surpass each other in inventing new clever stunts in search for the oxygen of publicity. With no direct links to journalists, the “press freedom industry” has, over the last decade, carved itself a special niche speaking freely on their behalf, commenting on major issues of journalism, corresponding with chiefs of states, making daily statements without asking journalists or their representatives’ views on them. There have been instances where their stunt became an impediment to advancing some issues. In others, they have no qualms in displaying the most shocking arrogance in hijacking conferences and seminars in a crude attempt to impose their various agendas on outcomes concerning journalists.
Setting themselves as little global corporations, many have now built mini-empires across several continents having anointed themselves as the true defenders of press freedom. Most could not do it without the financial support of powerful players in the geopolitical sphere. If you take the recent Arab spring, the press freedom industry has been the first to set camp in many Arab countries, thanks to the generosity of their backers. To make sense of the size of their operation one only has to read a State Department cable from 30 April 2009, published by WikiLeaks, which discusses an instance where funds were transferred to an Egyptian human rights organisation via the Morocco-based Center for Press Freedom. The funding was awarded as part of former President George W. Bush’s Middle East Partnership Initiative. The initiative has spent over US$ 530 million across 17 countries in the Middle East. This sum, dished out by the US for the Middle East only, is equivalent to 150 times the annual turnover of the IFJ funded by 150 journalists’ unions worldwide. No wonder the arrogance of the press freedom industry has no limits.
Among their many stunts is the Press Freedom Index published every year by Reporters sans frontières and promoted as the guiding light in the state of press freedom throughout the world. Its annual publication however does little to alleviate the pressures on journalists. Far from being an authoritative tool to scrutinise and understand what journalists have to confront in many countries, it usually throws together a circus where representatives of governments make a staunch defense of their respective performance, each shelling out a torrent of distractionary comments. What matters for them is why they have lost 10 positions since last year, or their rejection of being only two positions above their neighbour.
The tittle tattle is all about who has gone up and who has gone down. It may give easy copy to media commentators but it’s all superficial and hardly tells the real story, despite brave attempts by Reporters sans frontières to justify their methodology as if it were rocket science.
Take the case of Tunisia and Egypt which both experienced last year the most leading-edge changes in the Arab world. Tunisia has risen 30 positions from 164th to 134th which may reflect what had happened, but at the same time Egypt lost 39 positions to number 166, sandwiched between Laos and Cuba. The explanations given by RSF, such as arrests of journalists and intimidation of foreign journalists, are not convincing at all. At the same time, little explanation is available to justify why Saudi Arabia is 158th in the Index, eight positions higher than Egypt. Surely if we compare the way Egyptian journalists have been facing down the military crackdown to the supinity of their Saudi colleagues who failed to raise their heads above the parapet, it demonstrates clearly that the Index cannot be relied upon to give an accurate impression of the true nature of media in a given country.
There are many other examples that expose the Index as an imperfect and incomplete tool. The whole exercise is based on the subjectivity of scoring undertaken by various observers. It is also incapable of taking account of qualitative criteria such as content as well as plurality and accuracy.
It is hardly surprising then that the Index put Cabo Verde (9th) ahead of Canada (10th) and Denmark (11th), or that Jamaica is level with Germany (16th), that Niger (29th) is ahead of Australia (30th) and that Tanzania (34th) and Papua New Guinea (35th) are ahead of France (38th).
Or if you take the US falling from 20th to be ranked 47th on account of the 25 reporters arrested during the occupy movement protest. The classification of the US over many years has been lambasted as “fickle”. In 2006 the US hit an all-time low in the RSF Index reaching 53 because of the Bush administration intimidation of journalism using the pretext of “national security”. Later in in 2009, the US was ranked 20th thanks this time to what RSF calls the “Obama effect”. It is here where the Index is at its weakest showing considerable flaws in a methodology incapable of comparing the latest 25 arrests with what took place under Bush-era national security restrictions.
In the end the financial backers want the press freedom industry to provide them with what would be most useful to them, a list of goodies and baddies. On this, the Index with all its weaknesses is the perfect instrument.