ANALYSIS: The international media freedom group Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF – Reporters Without Borders) has released its 2011-12 World Press Freedom Index and Australia has slipped 12 places from 18th to 30th among the 179 countries ranked. New Zealand also dropped five places and out of the top 10 to 13th.
Those results and the organisation’s methodology deserve explanation and debate. As RSF’s Australian correspondent for the past six years I offer some insights on both fronts, although I am not a spokesperson for the organisation.
First to the latest ranking: what factors contributed to Australia’s decline in its media freedom status since 2010? For a start, the fact that there were five simultaneous government inquiries into news media regulation at the time it was being compiled sent a message to the international community that, for a Western democratic nation, the Australian government and its agencies were entertaining tougher regulatory measures.
They included the Convergence Review, its subsidiary Independent Media Inquiry, the National Classification Scheme Review, the Commonwealth Government’s Privacy Issues Paper and the Australian Communications and Media Authority’s review of privacy guidelines for broadcasters.
Between them they raised the prospects of new controls on print, broadcast and online media; a new tort of privacy; tough new classification systems across media; and the conversion of some self-regulatory bodies to regulatory status.
RSF was so concerned by suggestions at the hearings of the Independent Media Inquiry that journalists should be licensed or that the Australian Press Council should be given powers to fine media organisations for ethical breaches that they issued a release on the matter.
The trial of Victorian police officer Simon Artz for alleged leaks to The Australian newspaper about a counter-terrorism operation raised several media freedom issues, with Crikey senior journalist Andrew Crook allegedly breaching a suppression order by revealing the name of a former member of Victoria’s Special Intelligence Group involved in the hearing; warnings over Crikey journalist Margaret Simons live tweeting from the hearing; and The Australian’s Cameron Stewart being ordered to reveal his sources.
Victorian police launched an investigation into an alleged hacking of an Australian Labor Party electoral database by four journalists at The Age, including editor-in-chief Paul Ramage.
Government control over media access to detention centres prompted condemnation from the journalists’ union and RSF issued a release. The Department of Immigration introduced new guidelines to restrict reporting of, and access to, detention centres.
As an international NGO, Reporters Without Borders takes a special interest in human rights issues and presses for transparency and compassion in governments’ handling of refugees.
The Federal Court’s ruling that hate speech laws should trump free expression was of concern when a judge ruled Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt breached the Racial Discrimination Act in his criticisms of fair-skinned indigenous people.
Senior Fairfax executives were summonsed by the Police Integrity Commission to produce documents revealing sources in September in relation to articles by Herald journalists Linton Besser and Dylan Welch about the NSW Crime Commission.
In May 2011, the ABC used a programming exemption to FOI laws to deny The Weekend Australian and Herald Sun access to its audience data and employee salaries.
Earlier, Fairfax’s deputy technology editor Ben Grubb, 20, was arrested after reporting on a conference presenter’s alleged hacking at the AUSCert IT security conference.
RSF has also expressed concern for some years at the Federal government’s determination to introduce an internet filtering scheme.
While it is still unlikely the Australian government will have the political numbers to introduce its proposed internet filtering scheme, it has persuaded the major telecommunications providers and ISPs to adopt a "voluntary" scheme although they do not need to log or report incidents.
The government has used the review of classification schemes across media as the reason for the delay in its pursuit of a mandatory filter. However, this can be read as a convenient political excuse for its lack of parliamentary numbers to advance its filtering proposal.
All of this has happened against the backdrop of Australia being a rarity among democratic nations in not having freedom of the press or free expression stated explicitly in its Constitution and lacking a Bill of Rights where such freedoms are usually specified.
RSF’s panel weighed this data against that provided from other countries as they compiled the latest World Press Index.
While they have received advice on their methodology from the Statistics Institute of the University of Paris, RSF do not claim the index is a precise scientific measure.
It could never be, given the enormous variables at stake, and has to rely on an element of expert qualitative judgment when making the final determinations of a country’s comparative ranking.
The process centres upon a questionnaire sent to partner organisations (18 freedom of expression groups in all five continents), to its network of 150 correspondents around the world, and to journalists, researchers, jurists and human rights activists.
The questionnaire features 44 main criteria indicative of the state of press freedom. It asks questions about every kind of violation directly affecting journalists and ‘netizens’ (including murders, imprisonment, physical attacks and threats) and news media (censorship, confiscation of newspaper issues, searches and harassment).
It also measures the level of self-censorship in each country and the ability of the media to investigate and criticise.
Points are allocated to each response in the survey and scale devised by the organisation is then used to give a country score to each questionnaire.
The 179 countries ranked are those for which RSF received completed questionnaires from several sources.
The questionnaire takes account of the legal framework for the media (including penalties for press offences, the existence of a state monopoly for certain kinds of media and how the media are regulated) and the level of independence of the public media. It also reflects violations of the free flow of information on the internet.
I compare the process with the traditional approach academics have taken to essay marking in universities. Scores might be assigned to selected attributes using a rubric, but the process is ultimately a subjective one. That said, most academics arrive at very similar grades when called upon to remark an essay. They draw upon years of experience and countless earlier attempts by other students as their yardstick for assessing this one.
Many countries’ rankings change from year to year but there is little movement at the extremes. Europe typically dominates the top 10, with Scandinavian countries like Norway and Finland among the top few, while the usual suspects feature at the other end of the scale: Iran, North Korea, Vietnam, China, Burma, Turkmenistan and Eritrea.
Free expression is not absolute, although its opposite, censorship, can be.
The major difference is in what the lawyers call "prior restraint" – censorship before publication or broadcast. Those at the top of the scale have high levels of transparency and welcome media scrutiny of government processes, with a minimum of licensing, suppression and no physical intimidation of journalists. At the other extreme journalists are murdered, jailed and tortured, publishers of all kinds require a license, and Internet access is restricted.
Over the past five years, Australia’s ranking has fluctuated between 16 and 30 of the 179 countries surveyed, typically ahead of the United States but well behind New Zealand in the level of media freedom.
Governments might take issue with the methodology and argue over their precise rankings, but the index draws on the energies of experts throughout the world and in Paris and is thus taken seriously in international circles.
It serves to raise awareness about media and Internet freedom, which cannot be a bad thing in an age of government spin.
This commentary was first published in Online Opinion and has been republished with the permission of the author.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 New Zealand License.