Mapping & Navigating the Information Terrain

Included in every issue of Index on Censorship since it was founded in 1972, the Index Index listings of freedom of expression rights abuses worldwide have become one of its defining features.

Essential to its reputation as a ‘publication of record’ in the free speech world, Index Index’s collection of news items serve as a qualitative, slightly subjective data source, which gives a snapshot of the environment for free expression around the world.

Since 1972 it has been followed by more quantitative studies, covering one area of free expression in particular, that of media freedom. A number of survey-based media rights indexes are now published, chief among them annual studies by the US-based NGO Freedom House, the International Research & Exchanges Board (IREX) and the French Reporters sans Frontieres (RSF).

Partly due their ‘top ten’ best and worst style, these lists strongly appeal to the press, and the annual launches of each are often media events in their own right. This influence and profile draws critics as well as readers.

A 2010 study by the Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA), Evaluating the Evaluators: Media Freedom Indexes and What They Measure, cited several criticisms, in particular the lists’ perceived lack of ‘neutrality’. The CIMA report gave the example of how a US survey gave a higher press freedom ranking to the US over France; the French survey reversed the order.

The result has driven the rise of alternative measures including the African Media Barometer and the UN’s science & culture organisation UNESCO’s culturally ‘neutral’ Media Development Indicators. More specifically critics say the three over focus on old media and base their findings on old definitions of journalism and ‘traditional’ forms of media.

Digital media trends and information flows need to be better covered in a world linked by 4.6 billion mobile phones, the CIMA report notes in one of its six recommendations. The rapid transfer of mobile phone images from phone to internet to al-Jazeera TV was one of the most memorable features of this year’s Arab Spring, even if seen before in Iran and elsewhere. Before the current crisis, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) recorded a higher penetration of mobile phone usage in Libya than in Italy.

The quality and methodology of the social science underpinning these indexes and the apparent limited range of data used was also questioned. CIMA noted how the opening of just one new foreign funded printing house could push the country up the rankings, its closure on state orders push it down again.

Successes and failures needed to be tracked equally. Millions of dollars were spent on media development in East Europe post-1989, millions more since 2001 in Iraq & Afghanistan, to decidedly mixed result, but not without some remarkable individual effects.

Changes in government, investment climates and buy-ins by foreign corporations have effects that are already tracked by other agencies, but are not reflected by the studies. These questions take on greater significance given that these media freedom rankings are often used as benchmarks for other measures of development.

There’s an expectation that an independent media in conflicted or underdeveloped states should ‘police’ the use and effectiveness of economic aid and test the goodness of ‘good governance’ in aid-recipient states. Media coverage is often seen as a measure of foreign policy success or failure, or as a barometer of the view on the street, even a means to an early warning of crises that western intelligence systems may fail to predict.

A multi-million dollar industry has developed around the concepts of civilian ‘public diplomacy’ and military ‘information operations’. Working close enough to old-style propaganda and PsyOps techniques to worry many observers, this little-recognised industry has pumped millions into media operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, programmes that are expected to stay on working, long after the military units that founded them return to their home bases.

Connecting databases

Index on Censorship aims to develop a technical brief for a database platform that will allow greater cross-referencing of new, commissioned and available quantitative and qualitative data like this. An Index Index for the 21st century, the proposed platform will share the print version’s ambition to map and contextualise developments driving change in media and freedom of expression rights.

Tailor-made Application Program Interfaces (APIs) to connect existing databases and XML mark-up protocols for new data sets aim to facilitate this cross-referencing, while new data visualisation tools will make the information more accessible. The project will also draft the institutional  terms & conditions whereby the different data set ‘owners’ can share access while preserving the integrity and protecting the source of the original data.

For example: A study of evolving media rights in post-revolution Tunisia could take data on new regional media licenses, map them to geographic areas with their broadcast range, track their possible sustainability by cross-referring to advertising revenues on local print media, or magazine sale density against number of graduates per 1,000 population or literacy rates, or testing political environment by comparing figures on independent trade unionist membership against that of state-sponsored unions – just drawing from the kind of data sets widely available.

Aside from measures of media freedoms like RSF and Freedom House, and IREX’s more detailed Media Sustainability Index, there are other media rights and development surveys, global, regional and national. These include in the media rights sector, the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Impunity Index, tracking unsolved murders of media workers and the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) World Press Trends, covering 233 countries and territories.

A properly enabled database platform could also incorporate of economic and cultural data from non-media sources, ranging from transnational bodies such as the UN, ITO, ITU, OSCE and UNESCO; and studies of the commercial sector ranging from NGOs like WAN-IFRA and IFLA to private market analysts like Bell Pottinger, plus scores of qualitative and quantitative academic studies.

The Index programme also plans to run its own commissioned surveys and study missions to fill specific gaps in the data view.

The technical development phase of the programme proposes the design of a database platform for comparing different datasets; the identification of different quantitative database sources; the development of APIs and XML markup protocols to allow automatic comparison, or funds to cover data reformatting; data visualisation options to present the results of the data swops and support for a researcher-developer to run the programme and negotiate the terms and conditions under which the different data sets can be accessed and the depth to which researchers can drill down into them.

The programme will be a tool for media rights advocacy as well as media development, reinforcing the correlation between free media and democratic development and challenging the assumption that current rankings are weighted in favour of their authors’ perceived ‘western agendas’.

It could help Index on Censorship persuade – rather than demand – that governments, in CIMA’s words, “resist the temptation to dismiss studies and rankings of media freedom in their countries as outside interference”.

First published in July 2011

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