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

Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2007

Part I: RSF Finances

Last month, the Paris-based advocacy group Reporters Without Borders released its annual "Press Freedom Index," which ostensibly "measures the level of press freedom in 169 countries throughout the world." (Reflecting its French origins, Reporters Without Borders is most commonly known internationally by its French initials, RSF for Reporters sans frontières, and this acronym will be used here.) The 14 countries performing best in the RSF evaluation were all European, as were 17 of the top 20, 20 of the top 25, and 25 of the top 35. The United States placed a very mediocre 48th -- just behind Nicaragua. "Outside Europe," the RSF press release notes, "no region of the world has been spared censorship or violence towards journalists" -- an assessment that suggests that Europe has indeed been "spared" both.

The performance of European countries in the RSF press freedom rankings is impressive. It becomes less impressive, however, when one knows the extent to which RSF depends for its financing upon European governments: either directly or indirectly via the European Union. RSF is commonly referred to as a "non-governmental organization" or "NGO." But in light of its financial dependence upon and close ties to, in particular, the French government and, above all, European institutions, RSF could be regarded as the very prototype of what might better be called a "PGO": a "para-governmental organization." As will be seen in Part II of this exposé (to be published next week), its highly curious rankings map far better upon the external -- and, in certain cases, internal -- political agenda of the European Union than upon any concrete indicators of press freedoms, or restrictions thereupon, in the countries RSF claims to be objectively evaluating.

To start with, and by its own reckoning, 9 percent of RSF's 2006 income consisted of "public subsidies." The source of these subsidies is, namely, the French state. The Prime Minister's Office, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the International Organization for "Francophonie" (OIF) are specifically mentioned as contributors. (On the largely French-funded OIF, see here.) This 9 percent figure represents, again by RSF's reckoning, "a very slight decline" compared to 2005 (when the French subsidies represented 10 percent of the RSF budget).

In RSF's published 2006 accounts, which include only aggregate numbers, the budget line "subsidies" lists some €562,179 in income for 2006. This, however, amounts to 15 percent, not 9 percent, of RSF's total budget of nearly 3.9 million euros. It is down, moreover, from some €1,225,567 in 2005 -- which, as a percentage of RSF's relatively stable total budget, clearly represents far more than just a "very slight" 1 percent decline. These anomalies presumably indicate that some other -- unnamed and not French -- source is being counted under the heading of "subsidies" in the accounts.

More puzzling still, in the English version of the RSF 2006 accounts, the subsidies line in the French accounts quite simply . . . disappears. A different line, featuring a far more modest figure (€66,906), is re-baptized "subsidies" and yet another line, featuring an equally modest figure (€65,238), is reproduced twice: once as "brought forward, deferred costs" and once, yet again, as "subsidies." It is hard to imagine that such a massively convoluted "re-transcription" of the French accounts is the result of a simple mistake. In any case, the €562,179 in public subsidies for 2006 and the €1,225,567 for 2005 (the accounts show both years) are nowhere to be found in the 2006 English accounting. (The €1,225,567 does appear in the English version of RSF's 2005 accounts.)

Even if RSF continues to enjoy a special (if, as will be seen in Part II, sometimes, conflicted) relationship with the French government, the French subsidies it receives have over the years been far outstripped by those it receives from another "public" source: namely, the European Commission. A May 2001 European Commission working paper (link in French) lists a grant of some €1,487,000 to RSF. This figure would at the time have represented over half of RSF's total annual budget. In the same year, RSF was accorded yet another EU grant of €300,000. The Commission working paper notes that RSF "has long been a partner of the Commission in realizing activities focusing on the preservation and encouragement of independent media." It then goes on to describe at length the benefits expected from the grant to RSF, treating RSF throughout as just a vector of its own activity in the area of ostensible promotion of press freedoms. ("These activities will give rise to a large number of publications and other projects," the working paper notes, "such as the annual RSF reports for 2001 and 2002, which will focus on cases of imprisoned journalists.")

Next Page: After 2004, mentions of European Commission funding vanish . . .

Up to 2005, RSF made no mystery of the fact that it received financial support from the EU. Thus its 2004 summary statement on its income and expenditure, without giving precise numbers, still mentions continuing grant support from the European Commission in addition to public subsidies from no less than three French ministries. According to RSF's 2002 income and expenditure summary (French link), which does provide numbers, 24 percent of RSF's income came from EU grants amounting to some €779,000: nearly three times the level of the French public support (€291,000). In 2003, the listed EU contribution amounted to some €514,000.

Neither the 2005 nor the 2006 RSF income and expenditure summaries, however, make any further mention of financial support from the European Commission. Are we to suppose, then, that EU funding for RSF dried up after 2004? The anomalies in RSF's published accounts to which allusion was made above -- and, in particular, the conspicuously large sum of €1,225,567 listed as "subsidies" in the 2005 accounts -- suggests that this is not the case. Moreover, a brief search of EU funding sources (spreadsheet) turns up a grant to RSF of some €420,000 for "budget year" 2005 and "contract year" 2006. (EuropeAid, European Initiative for Democracy and Human Rights, contract no. 117720.)

Astonishingly, despite the readily available documentation of substantial French and EU subsidies to RSF, the only public support for RSF that has sparked any considerable controversy in recent years has been a direct grant from the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy for all of some $39,000. This modest contribution has been seized upon in a frenzied literature on the Internet and in "Leftist" publications, in order to suggest that RSF is in fact a paid instrument of American interests. The most widely cited source for these allegations is the French author Thierry Meyssan, whose 2002 volume "The Big Lie" first popularized the thesis that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were the product of a U.S. government conspiracy. "RSF," Meyssan concludes (French link), "is 7 percent support for oppressed journalists and 93 percent American imperialist propaganda." A more telling illustration of the distorting effect of anti-American phantasms -- and, above all, of the benefit that the European Union derives from anti-Americanism -- could hardly be imagined. Here the United States is transformed into the lightning rod for charges that on any even moderately sober assessment of the facts ought rather to be directed at the EU.

According to RSF's own current budget figures, only 9 percent of its income comes from member fees and charitable contributions -- this up from a meager 5 percent in 2002. RSF claims that the bulk of its income -- over two million euros in 2006 -- derives from the sale of "products": i.e. calendars and thematic "press freedom" photo albums. This claim is prima facie rather implausible and such a method of raising funds, moreover, provides ample scope for indirect or hidden subsidies. (RSF admits as much in noting, for instance, that the United Nations Development Program distributes its products "free of charge.") But even supposing the figure is accurate, it is highly misleading, since the production of such calendars and photos albums also involves costs. The net contribution of "product sales" to the RSF budget is substantially lower than the two million euro figure would suggest. (As judged by RSF's own sketchy cost figures, it would be over 40 percent lower.) By contrast, the French and European subsidies are, of course, "pure net."

I invite RSF to correct the inaccurate 2006 accounts published on its English-language Web site, which grossly understate the amount of its public subsidies. I call on RSF, furthermore, to publish its full accounts, with detailed information on the sources of its revenues -- such as American non-profit organizations, for example, are regularly required to do by law. In the absence of greater transparency on the part of RSF and until such time as it ceases to accept funding from the very states whose "press freedom" performance it ranks, the public will have every reason to suspect that the RSF Press Freedom Index is a political exercise and not the objective assessment that it claims to be. As will be seen in Part II, moreover, a closer look at the details of the RSF press freedom rankings massively bears out such suspicions.

For Part II of "The RSF Press Freedom Index: Independent Assessment or EU Propaganda?",click here.

For another example of a European "PGO," see the related blog post on the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH).

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