The Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index: Independent Assessment or EU Propaganda? (Part II)

By John Rosenthal, on , Briefing

Part II: The RSF Rankings

In light of the casualness with which media organizations and "human rights" groups regularly cite the Press Freedom rankings of Reporters Without Borders (RSF), one might well expect RSF's Press Freedom Index to be accompanied by a detailed report explaining how the organization established its rankings and providing a summary analysis of the situation of press freedoms of each of the 169 countries included. This would surely not be too much to expect of an organization disposing of an annual budget of nearly four million euros: much of which, as shown in Part I of this exposé, derives from public French and EU sources. Anyone looking for such a report from RSF, however, will be disappointed. The RSF Press Freedom Index is merely accompanied by a seven-page press release. Four of the seven pages, however, are taken up by a reproduction in tabular form of the index itself. This leaves RSF's discursive presentation of its results topping out at all of two-and-a-half pages or some 1373 words (in the English version): less than half the length of the present article.

A heading on the Web page for the RSF index promising "Evaluation by region" gives one hope for finding something more to chew on. The heading is followed by links for "Americas," "Asia," "Africa," "Europe" and "Middle East." Anyone clicking on those links, however, will discover that they lead to exactly the same 1373-word press release, with merely the subtitles changed! A more brazen expression of RSF's disinterest in providing a detailed justification for its rankings would hardly be possible.

In addition to the press release, RSF provides a brief note on "How the index was compiled" -- pompously titled a "methodological note" in the French version. The note is barely 400 words long. It begins: "The Reporters Without Borders index measures the state of press freedom in the world. It reflects the degree of freedom that journalists and news organisations enjoy in each country. . . ." Consisting almost exclusively of such bland assurances, the note contains virtually nothing that would merit the description of a "methodology." The only relevant piece of information one learns from RSF's "methodological note," is that RSF's rankings are supposed to be based on the responses to a questionnaire sent out by RSF "to its network of 130 correspondents around the world, and to journalists, researchers, jurists and human rights activists." Just how these responses are supposed to have been converted into the numerical "score" that determines the rank of each country in the index, we are not told. We are merely told reassuringly that the RSF has "devised a scale" for this purpose. The questionnaire is made available on the RSF Web site. The responses are not, nor are the names of the persons whose opinions are supposed to have been surveyed.

RSF's lack of transparency concerning both its primary "data" and the "method" ostensibly employed for converting the latter into the concrete "scores" assigned to the individual countries, obviously leaves the organization an extremely large -- indeed virtually unlimited -- margin for arbitrariness in establishing its rankings. A closer look at the RSF rankings shows that it has made ample use of this margin. We will focus here on three prominent examples that are of obvious interest for RSF's European sponsors.


The first 19 places in the RSF index are occupied by small, mostly European, countries whose excellent "performance" is unlikely to be begrudged by any of the larger global powers that battle it out for legitimacy and influence on the world stage: "consensus" candidates, so to say.

The first major power to appear in the ranking is Germany in 20th place -- some 28 places in front of the United States. In the six years that RSF has published its Press Freedom Index, Germany has never ranked below 23rd and it has always been ranked first among the EU "big three" powers (Germany, France and the United Kingdom) and well above all other major world powers: most notably, the United States. During this same period, both investigative journalists and media commentators have been subjected to a degree of interference and harassment by organs of the German state that would be unthinkable in the United States. The numerous episodes of press harassment and interference have included spying on journalists, police raids on editorial offices, and criminal investigations. Virtually any of these cases, had they occurred in the United States, would undoubtedly have been enduring front page stories -- not only in the newspapers of reference in the United States itself, but also in Germany and the rest of Europe -- and led to a (further) precipitous decline in the United States' ranking in the RSF Press Freedom Index.

In April of this year, the German television news magazine Panorama reported that the German intelligence service, the BND, and the German Federal Office for Criminal Investigation, or BKA, had mounted a joint surveillance operation against journalists of the German news weekly Focus between 2002 and 2004. Focus has been the venue of numerous explosive revelations on German intelligence operations: notably in connection with the Iraq War and Germany's highly ambiguous stance toward the American-led "War on Terror." It came out in 2005 that the BND had pursued spying operations against Focus reporter Josef Hufelschulte and the freelance journalist and intelligence expert Erich Schmidt-Eenboom starting in the mid-1990s.

The Panorama report likewise revealed that the Munich Public Prosecutors Office had opened a criminal investigation against Hufelschulte for "Aiding and Abetting in the Betrayal of State Secrets" (Beihilfe zum Geheimnisverrat). Note that this peculiar legal construct permits the prosecution not only of state officials who leak classified information to the media, but also of the journalists who report the information. It does not require much imagination to envisage the large number of, for example, New York Times reporters who would become the subject of criminal investigations if American prosecutors had a similar "tool" at their disposal.

In September 2005, the editorial offices of the German intellectual monthly Cicero were raided by the police in connection with an investigation into suspected "Aiding and Abetting in the Betrayal of State Secrets." This followed the publication in the April issue of the magazine of an article by author Bruno Schirra on the, in the meanwhile deceased, leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Police likewise raided Schirra's home: carting away some hundred files and dossiers, representing, on the author's account (Netzeitung, Oct. 12, 2005), the totality of his research archives. Udo Ulfkotte, the author of numerous books on both the BND and Islamist networks in Germany, was likewise the target of a lengthy criminal investigation on suspicion of having "Aided and Abetted the Betrayal of State Secrets." Both Ulfkotte's home and his wife's offices were repeatedly raided by the police. (For his first-hand account of the experience, see "The World - Upside-Down.")

Next Page: German coverage of the Al-Masri case . . .

In February of this year, the Hamburg Public Prosecutors Office confirmed that it had opened criminal investigations against four more German journalists suspected of "Aiding and Abetting the Betrayal of State Secrets." As reported on World Politics Review -- but virtually nowhere else in the English language -- the "state secrets" in question concerned the alleged CIA rendition "victim" Khaled Al-Masri (a.k.a. Khaled El-Masri) and, more specifically, the fact that German police investigators had classified Masri as a "proponent of military jihad." This fact obviously throws a far more favorable light upon alleged U.S. actions in connection with Masri than the customary accounts. Just why German authorities should want to keep it secret is, needless to say, a question with very serious implications.

If, as Bruno Schirra has suggested, the purpose of the German investigations is to intimidate journalists, there is evidence that they have had the desired effect. One need only compare the respective coverage in the German media of the cases of German Iraq hostages Susanne Osthoff and Hannelore Krause. Whereas in the case of Susanne Osthoff, numerous details emerged in the German media linking Osthoff both to her kidnappers and to the BND (see my reports here and here), the coverage of the more recent, but in certain respects similar, case of Hannelore Krause (see here) has been characterized by a virtually total absence of investigative reporting.

In addition to the chilling effect of the "Betrayal of State Secrets" investigations, one should also mention the German courts' exceptionally broad interpretation of defamation as a serious impediment to press freedoms. Thus, to take just one example, in June 2005, Samuel Laster, the editor of the Jewish-themed Austrian Web site "Die Jüdische" was sued for defamation in Germany for having published a text accusing Ludwig Watzal, an official of Germany's Federal Office for Political Education, of being an "Anti-Zionist Anti-Semite." Note that the description was based exclusively on Watzal's own published writings. Inasmuch as it involves nothing more than the interpretation of the public statements of a public official, it is difficult to imagine that such a suit would not be immediately dismissed as spurious by any court in the United States -- or indeed in any country where freedom of the press and freedom of expression are well-established. Faced with the prospect of a guilty verdict and a €15,000 fine, Laster not only was forced to remove the text from his Web site, but was also required to cover €5000 in court costs. (The German political scientist Matthias Küntzel provides a detailed account of the court proceedings in his ironically titled text "Hi Watzal! May I Call You an Anti-Semite?" (in German).)

Was RSF unaware of these flagrant encroachments upon press freedoms when it established its rankings or did it willfully chose to ignore them? Since RSF does not provide individual country summaries, there is no way of judging. In any event, in the six years that it has published its Press Freedom Index, RSF has never once expressly mentioned Germany as a violator of press freedoms.


RSF shows somewhat less indulgence toward France. This might be a point of honor, in light of the organization's French origins and its -- in France, at any rate -- well-known connections to the French state. It might also, however, be indicative of the fact that RSF's greater loyalties are owed not to France, but to the EU: which, as seen in Part I, has over the years been its principal source of public funding. In any case, RSF's two-and-a-half page press release -- without offering details -- manages to find critical words on the subject of press freedoms in France: noting that "many concerns remain about repeated censorship, searches of news organisations, and a lack of guarantees for the confidentiality of journalists' sources." Nonetheless, as the press release likewise underscores, France's ranking actually improved several places to a respectable 31st. Only EU partners Germany and the United Kingdom finished higher among major world powers.

RSF notes that its ranking "is based solely on events between 1 September 2006 and 1 September 2007." The word "events" is symptomatic, since to the degree RSF attempts to suggest any justification at all for its evaluation of the press freedoms situation in a given country, it almost invariably refers to highly publicized "events" rather than long-term structural conditions or laws. This makes it all the more amazing that RSF could detect a relative "improvement" in the press freedoms situation in France for the period in question. For it was during this very period that a French court found Philippe Karsenty, the proprietor of an independent Web site, guilty of "defaming" French public television France2 merely for having questioned the authenticity of France2's famous -- and increasingly infamous -- September 2000 report on the alleged shooting of the Palestinian boy Mohammad Al-Dura.

I have written at length on the court's ruling and the facts of the case in my earlier WPR report "The Al-Dura Defamation Case and the End of Free Speech." As I noted there, the principal significance of the case consists not in the soundness or otherwise of the court's finding that the evidence for a fraud was not probative, but rather in the fact that such a matter should come before a court at all. In this respect, France2's Al-Dura defamation suits -- there have been three in all -- bear a clear resemblance to the Watzal/Laster defamation suit in Germany. In both cases, a matter that in a free society would be a legitimate topic of public debate is transferred rather to the domain of the courts: thus obviously serving to suppress public debate.

RSF makes no mention of the Al-Dura defamation suits in the press release accompanying its 2007 index. Indeed, as far as one can judge from its Web site, it appears never to have taken any position on the Al-Dura defamation suits at all: acting as if they were irrelevant to the issue of press freedoms -- or, more exactly, as if they simply had not occurred. That RSF would maintain such a conspicuous silence was entirely predictable. It is indeed perhaps the clearest proof that RSF -- despite the occasional gesture of "dissidence" -- is very much part of the French institutional establishment. Other than to take note of Karsenty's condemnation by the court, the established French media in general have likewise maintained an almost perfect silence on the Al-Dura affair for the last year-and-a-half: this during a time when debate has been raging on the topic in the English-language media, both new and old.

Next Page: The French Media's "omerta" . . .

This absence of public debate is a gauge of just how dire is the situation of press freedoms in France. The French -- who, as a whole, show much greater awareness of the deficiencies of the French news media than do state-subsidized, ostensible defenders of press freedoms like RSF -- describe the media's subservience to such a "law of silence" as an omerta. The media "omerta" in France is made possible by precisely the sort of long-term structural limitations on freedom of the press that RSF, as a rule, ignores.

In its press release, RSF only mentions such structural factors in connection with its invariably dismal ranking of Russia: noting the country's "glaring lack of diversity in the media, especially the broadcast media." The glaring lack of diversity in the French media -- and, in particular, the preponderant role of the state -- is apparently not worthy of RSF's notice. Of France's five "national" television channels, three -- France2, France3 and France5/Arte -- are publicly owned. (The educational channel France5 and the "cultural" channel Arte share a broadcast frequency; Arte is co-financed by the French and German states.) Of the two privately-owned "national" channels, only one, TF1, provides extensive news coverage. The independence of TF1, moreover, can well be doubted: TF1 and the French public television corporation (France Télévisions) are partners in the recently launched 24-hour cable news channel France24. While two independent cable news channels are beginning to make inroads in attracting viewership, this means that, for the time being, the overwhelming majority of French television viewers get their news from either the flagship public broadcaster -- none other than France2 -- or its affiliated "competitor" TF1.

In France, moreover, both the glaring lack of diversity in the media and the preponderant role of the state extend also to the print media. France has, in effect, only two major generalist newspapers, which are the virtually exclusive references for all supposedly informed discussion: Le Monde and Le Figaro. Their smaller competitors are financially failing and propped up by public subsidies. The entirety of the French press, moreover, is indirectly subsidized by the state by virtue of its reliance on the Agence France-Presse or AFP: the ultimate source of a large part of the news that appears in all French newspapers. The AFP persistently makes a point of emphasizing its "independence." In fact, it is a state institution. The present day AFP is the creation of a French law: the 1957 "Law Establishing the Status of the AFP" (link in French). This law specifies that the AFP cannot be dissolved except likewise by law. The French state assumes a substantial part of the finances of the AFP in the form of "subscriptions" to its services. These "subscriptions" represented over 40 percent of all AFP revenues for 2005. The French prime minister, foreign minister, and minister of finance each appoint representatives to the AFP's governing body.

As itself a quasi-public organization -- and a quasi-French one at that -- it is perhaps unsurprising that RSF would not want to highlight the dangers of excessive state control over or involvement in the media. But one might think that it would at least be sensitive to the dangers of excessive concentration of media ownership by private corporations. But a further glance at its rankings shows that this is likewise not the case. Thus, the small Balkan country of Macedonia figures in a very respectable 36th place in RSF's 2007 rankings: just behind Italy and just in front of Japan -- and, needless to say, well ahead of the United States. All three of Macedonia's leading newspapers and an estimated 80 percent of Macedonian print media overall are controlled by a single corporation. Genuine organizations of journalists and press freedoms watchdogs have widely raised the alarm about this situation. Could RSF be unaware of it?

Or is RSF's discretion to be explained rather by the fact that the single corporation in question is the German media powerhouse the Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung group (WAZ)? It is perhaps not irrelevant that WAZ's managing director is none other than Bodo Hombach: the former special coordinator of the EU's "Stability Pact" for Southeastern Europe. As a "partner" of the European Commission (see Part I of this exposé), RSF might want indeed to avoid calling attention to such dubious connections and the obvious threat that they represent to press freedoms in Europe as a whole.

The United States

What could account for RSF ranking the United States, at 48th place, behind countries, which as the above survey will have made clear, are far from representing paragons of freedom of the press? A glance at the three "events" adduced in the RSF press release only serves to make the tendentiousness of this ranking more flagrantly obvious. One of them is "the murder of Chauncey Bailey in Oakland in August." Chauncey Bailey happens to have been a journalist. Thus, the recent and unsolved murder of someone who happens to have been a journalist and that may or may not have had something to do with his activity as such -- and that even if it did, surely has nothing to do with state policy -- is transformed by RSF into a gauge of the general situation of press freedoms in the United States.

RSF also cites "the detention of al-Jazeera's Sudanese cameraman, Sami Al-Haj, since 13 June 2002 at the military base of Guantanamo": as if the mere fact of his having been a camerman frees Sami Al-Haj of any suspicion of having perhaps also been an al-Qaida member or an enemy combatant. Finally, RSF cites the prison sentence served by San Francisco-based video blogger Josh Wolf. Wolf was found in contempt of court for refusing to turn over video footage to a grand jury determining whether to bring arson charges against participants in an anti-G-8 protest. The connection of the case to genuine press freedom issues is tenuous at best: unless RSF wants to argue that "freedom of the press" includes the right of every blogger to refuse to cooperate with judicial proceedings. Needless to say, such a vast expansion of the concept of press freedoms -- an expansion, in effect, ad absurdum -- would have more than a few implications for due process. As compared to the massive and systematic grounds for concern about the situation of press freedoms in France and Germany, these are very slim pickings indeed.


The unseriousness of RSF's approach is patent. It would appear that the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Rankings serve essentially as pegs on which to hang preconceived political judgments: a useful tool, then, for the propaganda purposes of RSF's sponsors. But for an independent and objective evaluation of the situation of press freedoms in the world, one will have to look elsewhere.

John Rosenthal, a WPR contributing editor, writes on European politics and transatlantic relations.