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Media | Science - Education

Press Freedom Index for Africa "a joke"

Map of the situation of press freedom in 2010, according to RSF

© RSF/afrol News
afrol News editorial, 20 October
- The reputable press freedom organisation Reporters Sans Frontières today presented its annual "Press Freedom Index". For Africa, the listing "cannot be taken seriously," the afrol News editor holds, adding that "methods are totally flawed."

South Africa is only fifth on the list of African countries when it comes to press freedom, according to RSF's 2010 index, falling significantly behind Namibia, Cape Verde, Ghana and Mali.

The claim is absurd. In no other African country does one find such a vibrant and ample press environment as in South Africa, able to attack government from any angle. Even racist white supremacist groups are publishing their propaganda in South Africa, and gay magazines are openly available - unthinkable in any other African state.

Media ownership in South Africa is widespread, with even poorer societies being increasingly empowered to voice their concerns in public. Also state media are reporting critically about government. Contemporary and historic abuse by the powerful ones is discussed openly in all channels, including a controversial new media bill.

Namibia, Cape Verde, Ghana and Mali have developed into countries where the environment for press freedom is surprisingly good. But they can of course not reach up to South African standards.

In the cases of Namibia and Cape Verde, it is a question of critical mass as only very small national populations are there to uphold media diversity.

In Namibia, 'The Namibian' is totally dominant among independent media. While daring to write critically about members of the ruling SWAPO party, 'The Namibian' must also consider that most of its readers are SWAPO voters. Articles too critical about for example government's treatment of the Caprivi secessionists or SWAPO's many human rights abuses during the Namibian freedom fight are therefore unlikely to reach the masses, neither through 'The Namibian' nor through state broadcasters. Small, non-influential critical channels are nevertheless tolerated in Namibia, but they only reach out to the specially interested.

Cape Verde's media landscape is equally totally dominated by the independent weekly 'A Semana', which includes critical reporting but basically is positive about government policies (which indeed are not bad). 'A Semana' does a good job and is not hindered in reporting freely, but Cape Verde's limited media landscape can never promote open and critical public debate at a scale comparable to South Africa.

Ghana and Mali indeed have developed into beautifully flowering media landscapes during the many years of democracy and progressive government. Ghanaian media, although not as powerful and all-inclusive as their South African counterparts, may be reaching a critical mass to hold the powerful one's accountable and create public debate.

Mali, with much weaker media institutions - struggling with funding, infrastructure and limited human resources - may be allowed to report freely but do not have the power to truly set the order of the day. Further, Mali's written media - which are the most critical - do only reach out to a ridiculously small portion of the population and the vast majority of Malians are not at all empowered to take part in the public debate. This is, it must be admitted, more a question of poverty than government policies.

The RSF ranking includes many more examples of surprisingly poor insight in the African media landscape. Kenya, for example, is a country with less media freedom than Guinea-Bissau and the Central African Republic, according to the index. Has anybody in RSF ever been to Kenya, Guinea-Bissau or the Central African Republic?

The most ridiculous example, however, is the ranking of Nigeria among Africa's bottom-ten countries regarding press freedom. According to the RSF index, the following African countries are among those experiencing greater press freedom than Nigeria: Ethiopia, Morocco, The Gambia and Chad.

Nigeria has a vibrant and multi-facetted press that dares to challenge government, pressure groups and powerful companies. It is true that Nigerian journalists often have to pay a high price for this and that the legal and the security situation for the Nigerian press urgently needs to improve. But Nigerian media are generally defining the order of the day in this large multi-party semi-democracy.

Gambian Dictator Yahya Jammeh has done away with every independent media in his country

© Gambia govt/afrol News

That is not the case in Ethiopia, where government easily withdraws printing permissions for media reporting too critically. It is not the case for Morocco, which arrests its best journalists. It is not the case in Chad, where legal improvements seemingly hide the fact that the many wrongdoings of the Idriss Déby dictatorship simply cannot be revealed in the national press.

The worst insult for the Nigerian press must be to be ranked behind The Gambia, one of the world's top-ten media predator countries. No independent media exists in the dictatorship of Yahya Jammeh. Critical newspapers were closed down and their journalists killed and tortured. Even journalists not hailing President Jammeh strongly enough are put on the street by presidential orders.

Nonetheless, RSF ranks The Gambia as a country where press freedom is improving. Allegedly, freedom here is greater than in Cameroon - which has some embattled independent media - and Algeria, Egypt and Congo Kinshasa (DRC). It is an insult to Gambian journalists.

"Totally flawed methods"
How could this strange ranking come into being? RSF is an important and professional organisation that should be highly respected for its great daily work to protect and promote press freedom around the world. RSF has already made and is making a difference, also in Africa.

The erroneous ranking comes from the fact that RSF is not professional when it comes to assess media freedom at large. The organisation's basic, routine work is to document, report and protest violations of press freedom on a daily basis, be it by government, institutions, armies, terrorists or companies.

The "Press Freedom Index 2010" first and foremost "measures the violations of press freedom in the world," according to RSF itself. This ranking "is based solely on events between 1 September 2009 and 1 September 2010," the organisation's notes on methodology further reveal.

This is where it all goes wrong. The ranking is based on "events", not the root situation in each country. It therefore does not measure and rank the press freedom situation in the world, but rather measures where something has happened during the last year.

Therefore, The Gambia is rapidly advancing on the RSF ranking, surpassing for example Nigeria. There is just not so much more that can happen of new "events" in The Gambia since the country's true journalists are already in jail, dead or exiled.

In Nigeria, on the other hand, there are many "events". Journalists are attacked from many places, not only government. Working conditions are tough in Nigeria. But press freedom and media diversity is still able to survive and be relatively fit - something that is not measured.

In South Africa, RSF is among many press freedom organisations rightly criticising a new media bill that could have a negative effect on press freedom. Also, the state broadcaster 'SABC' is said to have been forced somewhat more in line with government, and finally, several politicians - not government - have caught on a tougher tone on the media.

There are many "events" in South Africa. But in general, these events have not - at least not yet - significantly influenced the role and freedom of South Africa's media.

RSF says it also uses questionnaires to assess the "state of press freedom in each country." But also the questionnaires have a major focus on "events", although including issues such as the legal framework for the media.

But to rightfully assess the "state of press freedom in each country," one needs much more information and a much more professional approach. One needs to know the width of the media landscape, its financial muzzles, its means to reach out to readers and listeners, its influence on national politics, its capacity to investigate power abuses, its ability to include all parts of society, and so on.

As it is now, the RSF "Press Freedom Index" therefore is misnamed, misleading and flawed. And as RSF is an influential organisation, such grave errors can do much harm. One would expect more professionalism from a marvellous institution such as RSF.

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