The (Un)Reliability of the Press Freedom Index: A Case Study


July 11, 2017 – Fort Russ News – 

Op-ed by Denis Churilov

The mainstream narrative states that Russia has one of the world’s least free media landscapes, and that such statement is backed by research conducted by numerous independent NGOs. If you listen to, so called, “Russia experts” and “pundits” on TV, they will tell you that there is no freedom of press in Russia, that the government has total control over the media landscape, that the Putin’s opponents get murdered and his critics jailed. Such “pundits” often cite seemingly independent non-government, not-for profit organisations such as Amnesty International and the Human Rights Watch. They cite figures from Press Freedom Index, prepared by Reporters Without Borders, perceiving them as the ultimate and unbiased authority whose ranks and ratings are based on empirical data.

But how reliable those figures, ranks and ratings are in reality? 

Well, first of all, it must be understood that there is no such thing as completely independent NGOs (unless they are completely crowdfunded and/or making enough money through advertisements). If they are funded by someone, they supposed to act in their interests, to one degree or another. 

As such, in 2005, Robert Menard (the Reporters Without Borders secretary general) admitted that they’ve been receiving money from NED (National Empowerment for Democracy, a US Congress-funded organisation that was set up to spread the US influence abroad) for years, even though they used to deny it prior to the mid-2000s. 

Amnesty International has reported receiving money from UK Department of International Development and European Commission in the past. AI also regularly receives funds from Soros’s Open Society Foundation (George Soros obviously has economic and, thus, political agenda in numerous regions around the word; he has been affiliated with the Clintons, by the way).

The Human Rights Watch has been openly receiving money from Soros directly. 

So, all these NGOs are far, far from being unbiased and independent. 

Needless to say, organisations such as Reporters Without Borders, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch always seem to act within the interest of the US government and Trans-Atlantic financial institutions, supporting the official US foreign policy line, be it their activity in Latin America, Asia or Eastern Europe. 

Now, let’s look specifically into how freedom of press is measured. Let’s take the Reporters Without Borders annual Press Freedom Index report, the figures from which are often cited in discussions about media freedom. Anyone can go to their official website and read the description of their methodology.

There, they explain that they themselves select a handful of “media professionals”, lawyers and sociologists in each country and ask them to complete an 87-item questionnaire. The Index is based not solely on objective, empirical data, but on the SUBJECTIVE PERCEPTION of the respondents they select. It is not a randomised study, and the respondents could be purposefully selected to create bias, or even outrightly fabricate responses. They could even be interviewing people from local BBC branches or people from local US embassies who qualify as “media professionals” and lawyers. 

Due to deep methodology issues, those indexes and ratings are practically meaningless. 

It is also possible to assess the reliability of Press Freedom Index by performing direct case analysis. 

For instance, in the latest, 2017 version, Ukraine is ranked 102, while Russia is at the 148th position. How does it stand a reality check? 

The Ukrainian government banned Russian TV channels after the regime change in 2014. Some Ukrainian media outlets have been forcefully shut-down after the Euromaidan events. Journalists have been murdered by ultra-nationalists (Kalashnikov and Buzyna being prime examples), some have been imprisoned (even ordinary Ukrainian citizens who create and administer pro-Russian or anti-Kiev government pages on social media get prosecuted as “Russian agents” by Ukrainian Security Services, SBU, these days; the SBU openly brags about it). Ukraine now has a web-service, Myrotvorets, which serves as a database of those who “show signs of crimes against the national security of Ukraine”. Anyone can report anyone on a suspicion of being a “Russian agent” or a “separatist collaborator”, based on the materials they post online, and the information about them (including personal phone number, workplace, and home address) will go public, endangering the reported individuals. 

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As such, even some of the Western journalists got labeled “terrorist collaborators” for merely getting accreditation from authorities in the rebellious provinces.

Kalashnikov and Buzyna, who have been mentioned earlier, had their personal details posted on the web-site shortly before they were assassinated. 

The web-service is curated by Anton Gerashenko, who is Advisor to the Internal Affairs Minister. 

So, practically, government officials openly curate services that are used as repressive apparatus against both journalists and ordinary citizens alike. 

There are many instances of outright, deliberate and open attacks on free speech in post-Euromaindan Ukraine. It would take several large volumes to describe all the instances of violations and attacks on the freedom of speech in Ukraine that are known to public (speaking of the most recent violations, a few weeks ago, for example, Channel 5, which is owned by president Poroshenko, aired confidential details, including home address, of a journalist in exile, Anatoly Sharij, who criticises the current government), yet all those NED and Soros-sponsored NGOs are silent.

How does it all compare to Russia? Russia has its own problems, of course, but, to say that it has one of the least free media landscapes in the world is absurd. Russia has numerous mainstream media outlets that are strongly anti-Putin. Media outlets such as RBK, Rain TV/Dozhd’, Echo of Moscow, Gazetta Ru, Kommersant’ – all operate freely, employing hundred of journalists who are vocal opponents of Putin. 

One of the Russia’s most famous journalists, Vladimir Posner, is a vocal critic of the government and Putin himself, yet he has his own TV-programme on Channel One, one the most viewed government TV-channels in the country, and he uses his programme as a platform to voice his personal political views.

Russia has large state-funded media conglomerates, such as VGTRK, that’s true, but there are also numerous other media outlets that are independent form the government. In fact, the non-government media outlets are the majority in Russia. 

Needless to say that major Western mainstream media outlets, such as BBC, DW and Euronews, also have their regional brunches that operate in Russian language and can be seen freely on cable TV. 

That is compared to Ukraine, where the current government bans foreign media outlets, deliberately endangers the lives of the regime critics and routinely prosecutes administrators of groups/pages on social media that don’t follow the government line. 

Russia being 46 positions below Ukraine in 2017 Freedom of Press Index ranking makes no sense. And that is one only one example that, by itself, demonstrates how honest and reliable those Press Freedom Indexes are. And it also tells a lot about the integrity of the NGOs such as HRW and AI. 

It is a matter of using different standards and applying them differently depending on the region and on the political agenda of those who fund such NGOs. 

The idea that Russia has one of the world’s least free media landscapes because some NGOs say so is false on numerous levels: 1) those NGOs aren’t independent and are funded by people and organisations that have political agenda, 2) their research methodology suffers from systemic validity issues, 3) their ranking figures could easily be refuted with basic subject knowledge and common sense, and 4) contrary to the statement, Russia has, in fact, numerous anti-government and anti-Putin media outlets that are of a mainstream status. 

Therefore, citing figures provided by those organisations should be taken with a grain of salt, or be considered outright propaganda, if it is done repeatedly to serve someone’s agenda with no factual substance provided. 

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