Press freedom index: Why Afghanistan outperformed India, who measures it, and how accurate is the data

The government questions the RSF’s methodology. Newslaundry looks into how it’s calculated.

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Press freedom index: Why Afghanistan outperformed India, who measures it, and how accurate is the data
Kartik Kakar
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On World Press Day, India slumped by 11 places to rank 161 among 180 nations in the new World Press Freedom Index released by Reporters Without Borders – an international organisation advocating free and reliable information.

The downward slide continues even as the Narendra Modi government maintains that it does not subscribe to the findings of the “non-transparent” index while questioning the RSF’s methodology. RSF has termed it an attempt to “destabilize” the index.

What is the index about? How is the score calculated? Are autocracies safer than democracies for journalists? Do more detentions or arrests mean a lower ranking? 

Newslaundry takes a look.

Methodology and sample size

The index evaluates the environment for journalists and covers 180 countries. Until 2021, RSF would rate countries under seven categories, but there are five “contextual indicators” on which countries are now scored, from 0 (worst) to 100 (best). These are political context, legal framework, economic context, sociocultural context and safety – with a total of 117 questions and sub-questions. 

The “safety” segment has questions related to journalists’ murder, detention, harassment, etc. 

Once the indicators are collated, countries are mapped into five categories: good situation (85-100 points), satisfactory situation (75-85), problematic situation (65-75); difficult situation (45-65) and very serious situation (below 45). India is in the last.

But who is answering these questions and what’s the sample size?

The government think tank Niti Aayog, in a 2020 note, claimed that questions are answered by “18 freedom of expression NGOs, many of which are funded by the RSF, and a network of around 150 correspondents, and researchers, jurists and human rights activists”. This means, the note claimed, one respondent is asked to assess one country. 

However, RSF, in an email reply to Newslaundry, said the number of respondents, claimed by the government, is “made up” and it stands close to 10 for each country, translating into around 1,800.

“I don’t know where this data comes from, but it is totally made up. Since 2013 at least, all respondents have always been individuals (journalists, academics, experts, etc.). No NGO as such is a respondent. The figure of 150 does not correspond to anything,” said Daniel Bastard, head of the Asia-Pacific desk at RSF. 

Last year, replying to a question in the Rajya Sabha, Information and Broadcasting Minister Anurag Thakur spoke about why the government differed on the index. “The government does not subscribe to its (RSF) views and country rankings and does not agree to the conclusions drawn by this organisation for various reasons including very low sample size, little or no weightage to fundamentals of democracy, adoption of a methodology which is questionable and non-transparent, etc.” he had said.

From rank 80 to 161 over two decades

In its introduction to the India profile, RSF says that “press freedom is in crisis” in the country because of “violence against journalists, the politically partisan media and the concentration of media ownership” since 2014 when the Narendra Modi government was voted to power.

India’s rank has dropped 11 places to 161 – its worst. In 2014, the country was ranked 140. In 2002, the rank was more palatable at 80. 

The study also provides separate rankings of countries with each indicator. 

For example, India performed the worst in “security” and has been ranked 172. It stood at 143 on “social”; 144 on “legislative”; 155 on “economic”; and 169 on “political”.

RSF explains India’s “security” assessment. “India is one of the world’s most dangerous countries for the media. Journalists are exposed to all kinds of physical violence including police violence, ambushes by political activists, and deadly reprisals by criminal groups or corrupt local officials,” reads RSF’s India page. It raises concerns over “online attacks” by supporters of Hindutva; “terrifying coordinated campaigns of hatred and calls for murder are conducted on social media”; targeting of women journalists; a “worrisome” situation in Kashmir; and “provisional detentions for several years”.

The “political” indicator examines media autonomy vis-à-vis political pressure, media’s acceptance in holding the government accountable and “the level of acceptance of a variety of journalistic approaches satisfying professional standards”. 

Newslaundry had earlier reported that no foreign correspondent (non-Indian) has been allowed to report from Kashmir since 2019 and it was rare for the government to approve permits for them in restricted and prohibited areas spanning Northeast and border states.

Newslaundry reached out to the government for comment. Two officials from the Press Council India could not meet because they were “busy” while another from the Information and Broadcasting Ministry remained unavailable for comment. 

Detentions and murders

The RSF “barometer” on “victims of abuses” index shows that one journalist – Shashikant Warishe of Mahanagari Times – has been killed and 12 detained over the period the country was assessed. 

India, as mentioned above, ranks 172 in the “security” indicator. Interestingly, Belarus, where 46 journalists remain under detention, is four places above India. Another example is Afghanistan, where seven journalists are under detention, two have been killed and one disappeared. It is placed at 161. It’s followed by Egypt with 25 cases of “abuses”. But all three have performed better on the “security” index. What explains this? One reason could be that the index also gives weightage to online trolling, targeting, harassment and threats.

Unsurprisingly, murder has more weightage than detention and other “abuses” in the index.

Democracy and press freedom

According to the Democracy Index of 2022, India is a “flawed democracy”, at the 46th position. The “flawed democracy” category is followed by “hybrid regimes” and “authoritarian regimes”. However, several of these countries have a better press freedom ranking.

Uzbekistan has an authoritarian regime but with a ranking of 137 performs much better than India’s 161 when it comes to press freedom. 

Closer home, Afghanistan, with the disappearance of the last vestiges of democracy, has come on top at 152. In Latin America, journalists working from Venezuela are safer than India’s. In the Maghreb, Libya is better than India. 

When asked about if the form of governance has any impact on the press index, Bastard said, “The RSF ranking does not judge the political system but the situation in 180 countries and/or territories. It is based on an analysis of five indicators...it therefore includes the political context but is not restricted to it.”

Be it that as it may, the index is a damning commentary on India’s deteriorating freedom of the press.

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Press Freedom Fund

Democracy isn't possible without a free press. And the press is unlikely to be free without reportage on the media.As India slides down democratic indicators, we have set up a Press Freedom Fund to examine the media's health and its challenges.
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