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Evaluating the Evaluators Media Freedom Indexes and What They Measure

John Burgess commissioned by Center for Global Communication Studies Annenberg School for Communication
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All over the world, studies that rank countries by media freedom figure prominently in civil liberties debates, aid programming, foreign policy decisions, and academic research. The three most widely cited indexes—compiled by Freedom House, the International Research & Exchanges Board (IREX), and Reporters Without Borders (RSF in its French initials)— often become media events in their own right on release day, written about by local newspapers and Web sites and analyzed on television and radio. In view of the breadth and depth of their impact, academics have been studying the quality of the social science that underlies these and other studies.
Does media freedom equal independence from government? Does it mean physical safety for journalists and lack of censorship? Some analysts feel that what matters most is whether media listen to their country’s citizens and act on their behalf. In this view, the central issue is whether media help them take part in the democratic process. Good media can be owned by anyone as long as they give “voice” to the ordinary citizen.
The surveys share the bedrock principle that media freedom applies in every country of the world, enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That document, proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in 1948, is officially embraced today by all UN member.states. Article 19 of the Declaration reads:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
But from that common starting point, the studies strike out in different directions concerning what to study and how.