On 20 October, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) published the 2009 edition of its annual country-by-country press freedom rankings, reflecting the situation between September 2008 and 1 September 2009. But behind the figures, there are worrying signs of western double standards.
To compile this index, RSF prepared a questionnaire with 40 criteria that assess the state of press freedom in each country. 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.
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). A scale devised by the organisation was then used to give a country score to each questionnaire. A copy of the questionnaire is available on the RSF website.
The 175 countries ranked are those for which RSF received completed questionnaires from a number of independent sources. Some countries were not included because of a lack of reliable, confirmed data.
The rankings show a noticeable improvement for the Netherlands, which is now in 7th place compared to 16th in the 2008 edition. Nevertheless, the situation here still isn’t perfect. In 2006, the Netherlands topped the list, but since then there have been a few incidents that have caused concern. The most recent one involves a media code that protects the privacy of the Dutch royal family.
In August 2009, a Dutch court ruled in favour of Crown Prince Willem-Alexander and his family in a lawsuit against the Associated Press. The judge said that the US news agency had violated the family’s privacy by publishing a photo of them skiing while on vacation in Argentina. The pictures appeared in several Dutch news outlets. The royal family asked that the photos be removed, and the Dutch news outlets agreed. But when the AP did not, the royal family took them to court.
Europe's poor performers
Arguably of greater concern are the relatively poor ratings given to a number of European countries, notably France and Italy, which are ranked 43rd and 47th respectively. RSF points out that some African democracies - Mali, South Africa and Ghana- are now ranked above them. The situation in Italy is well-known to be related to Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s dominant position as a media owner. The national public broadcaster, RAI, is also influenced much more directly by the government than is the case in most other European countries.
In France, the political party of President Nicolas Sarkozy, himself as former communications minister, accused Agence France-Presse of "censorship" for not publishing one of its press releases. Just ten days later, the government suggested that the news agency create a service dedicated to publishing press releases. This has aggravated the situation in a country where many newspapers rely on government subsidies and where close allies of the president control large swaths of the print and broadcast media.
The 'Obama effect'
Although the US has climbed back to 20th position compared to 40th last year, RSF says it still has concerns despite what it calls 'the Obama effect'. It points out that this sharp rise concerns only the state of press freedom within the United States. Despite a slight improvement, RSF says the attitude of the United States towards the media in Iraq (145th) and Afghanistan (149th) is still worrying. Several journalists were injured or arrested by the US military. One, Ibrahim Jassam, is still being held in Iraq.
What’s clear is that some western countries appear guilty of “double standards” in their attitude to press freedom. While their governments condemn the poor state of press freedom in some other countries, there are sometimes serious problems within their own jurisdiction that need to be addressed. Without actually using the word hypocrisy, RSF Secretary-General Jean-François Julliard said:
"It is disturbing to see European democracies such as France, Italy and Slovakia fall steadily in the rankings year after year. Europe should be setting an example as regards civil liberties. How can you condemn human rights violations abroad if you do not behave irreproachably at home?"
Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of Radio Netherlands Worldwide.
Lead photo: Freedom House