Oil exports, per capita GDP, economic stability... is there a correlation between such economic indicators and a country’s ranking in the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index? Are media freedom and independence linked to economic development? This year, Reporters Without Borders takes a look.
Media freedom,rich country’s privilege?
Per capita GDP correlates positively with media freedom (a correlation coefficient of 0.41). Norway and Denmark are good examples. They are among the 20 countries with the highest per capita GDP in the world and are ranked 2nd and 3rd respectively in the 2015 Press Freedom Index. At the other end of the scale, the world’s poorest countries such as Ethiopia, Gambia and Eritrea are ranked 142nd, 151st and 180th. In these countries, poverty and authoritarianism go hand in hand, and information is suppressed in favour of state propaganda.
But there are contrasting examples that show that media freedom is not a prerogative of the rich. Niger, the world’s least developed country according to the United Nations Development Programme, is ranked 47th out of 180 countries in the 2015 Press Freedom Index. Despite a challenging economic environment, Niger’s media have been diverse and outspoken since President Mamadou Tandja’s departure in 2010. But, while the creation of democratic space has been positive, Niger’s poverty continues to be a structural handicap limiting media development and the introduction of better educational standards in journalism.
A link between economic stability and media freedom
There is a 0.59 correlation coefficient between the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index and the Institute for Economics and Peace’s political stability indicator, which measures the ability of countries to satisfy the needs of businesses and investors.
Countries that are renowned for their economic stability such as Germany (12th in the Press Freedom Index), Finland (1st) and New Zealand (6th) also guarantee media freedom in a durable manner. On the other hand, in South Sudan (125th) and Afghanistan (122nd), economic instability and media freedom fragility go together. Africa’s newest country is torn by civil war and has an extremely polarized press. In Afghanistan, it is the state’s ability to guarantee media safety that is lacking.
However, this correlation is not systematic. The cases of China (176th), Malaysia (147th) and Mexico (148th) serve as a reminder that some countries may offer stability to investors while performing terribly as regards freedom of information.
Black gold rather than ink
The oil-exporting countries are not guardians of freedom of information. Wealth does not guarantee a free press. A comparison of the Press Freedom Index with figures in the CIA World Fact Book shows that the oil-exporting countries are an average of four points behind those that are not (32.63 as against 36.64).
Saudi Arabia is the best example. The world’s biggest oil exporter (7.5 million barrels per day), the kingdom is ranked 164th in the 2015 Press Freedom Index and got the worst score for legislation governing media and information, as seen in the sentence of 1,000 lashes and ten years in prison that was imposed on the blogger Raif Badawi.
The world’s second and third biggest oil exporters, Russia and Iran, are also good examples. Russia has fallen four places to 152nd while Iran is unchanged at 173rd. With a total of 50 journalists and netizens currently detained, Iran is one of the world’s five biggest prisons for news and information providers. Russia cracked down on independent media in 2014 and added new draconian laws to the many adopted in recent years.
Arms and media independence do not go together
The countries that spend the most on weapons in relation to GDP have the least free press (correlation coefficient: 0.29). The best example is North Korea (179th), which invests an inordinate amount on its military and tolerates absolutely no media independence.
But it is not alone. In Zimbabwe (131st), the eternal dictator and predator of media freedom, Robert Mugabe, pumped an insane 11 percent of the country’s GDP into arms in 2013. This is a world record for a country not involved in any conflict, one that still awaits criminal code reforms that would protect freedom of information.