Thursday, January 10, 2008

The envelope please: Quantifying press freedom in West Africa

Every year the Media Foundation for West Africa tallies the number of “attacks on freedom of speech and expression” throughout the sub-region. The tally for 2007 are in, and it looks like a better year than the previous year.

“One hundred and forty-two (142) cases of violations were recorded in fifteen of the sixteen countries covered by the MFWA in the sub-region, including Mauritania, as compared to one hundred and sixty-eight (168) in 2006,” the group said in a statement.

Here is the breakdown by country and number of abuses to press freedom rights.

  • Niger 23
  • Nigeria 18
  • Sierra Leone 14
  • Liberia 14
  • Ghana 13
  • Guinea-Conakry 11
  • Gambia 11
  • Senegal 9
  • Cote d’Ivoire 8
  • Mali 7
  • Mauritania 7
  • Burkina Faso 6
  • Guinea-Bissau 4
  • Togo 3
  • Benin 2
  • Cape Verde 0

A few caveats: The MFWA claims to do their best job monitoring these events, but if abuses happen in rural areas or outside large cities, this proves difficult. The group also points out that the number of cases are merely totaled, not weighted for significance. Thus, a country with higher number of cases may be more open regards to press freedom that countries containing only a few abuses. “Two countries, The Gambia and Guinea-Conakry, exhibited the worst and generally more violent forms of repression, yet recorded numerically less than, say, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Ghana,” the group said.

Is this true? We can cross check using an easy Press Freedom Index created by Reporters Without Borders which ranks every country in the world according to what they term “press freedom.”

Here’s a (long) list of criteria they take into account to compile the list:

…[E]very kind of violation directly affecting journalists (such as murders, imprisonment, physical attacks and threats) and news media (censorship, confiscation of newspaper issues, searches and harassment). Ánd it includes the degree of impunity enjoyed by those responsible for these press freedom violations…It also measures the level of self-censorship in each country and the ability of the media to investigate and criticise. Financial pressure, which is increasingly common, is also assessed and incorporated into the final score…The questionnaire takes account of the legal framework for the media (including penalties for press offences, the existence of a state monopoly for certain kinds of media and how the media are regulated) and the level of independence of the public media. It also reflects violations of the free flow of information on the Internet.

Here’s how West African countries stack up. (Like sports rankings, the lower the number, the better):

  • Ghana 29
  • Cape Verde 45
  • Togo 49
  • Mauritania 50
  • Mali 52
  • Benin 53
  • Burkina Faso 68
  • Senegal 73
  • Liberia 85
  • Niger 87
  • Cote d’Ivoire 94
  • Guinea-Conakry 107
  • Guinea-Bissau 107
  • Sierra Leone 121
  • Gambia 130
  • Nigeria 131
  • Eritrea 169, the lowest

The MFWA would like to point out that while it records violations of press freedom, it does not quantify the number of attacks on the wider issue of freedom of expression, such as academic freedom and the like. The group pointed out that Mali, which totaled very few cases of abuses, had one case that was a “distinctly disturbing violation of academic freedom.”

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