Press freedom rankings regularly spark global interest but it's not always clear how they're compiled or interpreted. Journalists and media experts took a closer look at a podium discussion in Berlin.
From left to right: Laura Schneider, Bahaeddin Güngör, Christian Mihr und Ute Welty discussing press freedom indices
If governments can issue press cards but just as easily call up a chief editor to have a critical journalist fired, freedom of the press is in jeopardy. Bahaeddin Güngör, head of DW's Turkish Service, said this is common in Turkey. "More journalists are currently in prison than in Iran and China combined," he said at a Berlin discussion round organized by DW Akademie and the German public broadcaster, ARD. "Reporters are treated like terrorists," Güngör said.
That's reflected by Reporters Without Borders' press freedom index which currently ranks Turkey 154 out of 180 countries, thus putting it behind Chad, Colombia and Iraq.
However, it is not always clear how the various indices are compiled or the extent to which they are objective.
For her study, Laura Schneider analyzed and compared the five best-known press freedom indices published by different organizations. The DW Akademie project manager said that while she generally agreed with the NGOs' approaches and criteria, there was at times a lack of transparency. "It wasn't always clear in terms of who was surveying a given country," she said, "and how many people were doing this."
Transparency, Schneider said, was especially important in countries where only a handful of people filled out questionnaires issued by Reporters Without Borders. The NGO uses their results to determine a country's positioning. "Although the organization's website says it promotes transparency," Schneider said, "we often just don't know how many people have in fact been surveyed."
Different indices, different rankings
Christian Mihr, Executive Director of Reporters Without Borders Germany, with discussion host Ute Welty
"I'm often surprised that journalists don't question these rankings more critically," said Christian Mihr, Executive Director of Reporters Without Borders in Germany, but admitted that the ranking index did have weaknesses and that not all languages were included.
"We gather data and information by asking our partner organizations and correspondents about press freedoms in their own country," Mihr explained. "Violence is our prime focus because we've traditionally supported journalists who work in war zones and crisis areas."
However, violence isn't always the top criterium for other ranking organizations. While Reporter Without Borders puts Germany at position 14, for example, the US organization Freedom House ranks it further down the list because the NGO puts the focus on state influence instead.
Comparing the five indices, Schneider said she'd found cases where a country's ranking differed by up to 70 ranks. The lists, she said, lacked details and at the most only reflected trends. "They're basically a type of PR tool for raising awareness about cases of abuse."
Schneider mentioned that while working on her study, she was asked by the American NGO Freedom House to rank a number of countries herself. "They wanted me to assess all German-speaking countries - Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Lichtenstein." But she also pointed out that many countries are only evaluated by interns based in the US who do their research online.
Are ranking indices a means to an end?
The podium discussion struck a nerve with the audience and lively exchanges ensued. Gemma Pörzgen, a journalist and board member of Reporters Without Borders, pointed out that the rankings served to increase interest about the NGO’s work in general, and especially its aim to protect journalists and raise awareness at the political level.
Christian Mihr added that the NGO is now also focusing on bloggers and social media users. "This is about supporting freedom of information," he said, "and not just freedom of the press."
As for Turkey, Baheddin Güngör said press freedom rankings were only partially helpful. "You can find politicians who literally brag about Turkey's low ratings," he said, but added that the goals of organizations like Reporter Without Borders were more important than ever. "Many journalists in Turkey censor themselves in order to keep their jobs and support their families." If the rankings increased pressure on the politicians, Güngör concluded, more press freedoms could be achieved.