Saturday, May 05, 2007

A Freedom for Everyone

Upon being placed in the lower part of the world's freedom of press indexes, including placing 165th (after Togo, Venezuela, and Azerbaijan) in the ratings of Freedom House, Russia decided to take freedom into its own hands and issue its own ratings.

Elena Zelinskaya, a member of the Public Chamber (a newly created "independent" quasi-branch of government intended to put checks on the legislative branch in Russia) has with the support of the Public Chamber initiated a project labeled "Freedom of Press Index" in association with the Russian Center for Public Opinion Research (VCIOM). The project plans to attract both Russian and foreign sociologists to give an unbiased opinion of the freedom of press in Russia (both on a federal level and a local/regional level). Ms. Zelinskaya has expressed her dissatisfaction with the way Freedom House composes its index, in which Russia falls lower and lower with every passing year. The main factors hurting the objectiveness of the rating are, as the Public Chamber member claims, the basis of the rating on the opinions of experts and the fact that the actual events going on in the country "do not interest the rating agencies", as BBC Russian reports.

The newly created index system will focus on the educational level of journalists, a region's advertising market, relationship with local government, as well as the ownership structure of the media source. The rating will also compile the degree of press ownership index by federal, municipal, and large business entities.

Meanwhile, Kommersant reports that another member of the Public Chamber, a prominent lawyer Anatoliy Kucherena, has begun the registration process for an Association of an organizations focusing on the monitoring of civil freedoms in the world's progressive democracies, such as the US, Germany, France, Italy. One of the problems with human rights in the US, in the opinion of Mr. Kucherena is the "frying pan", referring to the use of the electric chair for prisoner executions.

To an uninformed observer, Russia's attempts are logical. Russia is unhappy with the way it is rated, it feels the objectivity of Freedom House is irreversibly tied together with US views on foreign policy. The rankings that the Public Chamber suggested, particularly those concerning Russian federal and regional press have interesting dimensions, and should be more objective if the analysis is conducted by independent experts with a distinct knowledge of the quirks of the Russian press.

Yet, there are several questions that need to be answered about such ratings. How and why are they conducted in the first place; why are they conducted solely by the US; who reads and cares about the rating; and, finally, who will the audience of the Russian ratings be?

The US is positioned as the "beacon of democracy" whose job in its opinion is to ensure and promote the spread of freedom throughout the world, as well as to help those that are oppressed and hurt by the actions of "unfree" states. Because no other country takes on that role to its full extent, US agencies have virtual monopoly power to publish such ratings, assisting US foreign policy strategists in setting up foreign policy in a way to ensure that free countries dominate the globe; and with freedom will come stability.

So when Russia in a few months publishes its first assessment of the freedoms of press, and freedom of civil rights of the Western countries, crticizing their hypocricy and maybe putting Russian press slightly below the freedom of its Western colleagues, who will be the audience, and what purpose will the Russian ratings serve? From current observations it is clear the audience will be the Russian population, who will be fed this information (whether objective or not). The ratings themselves will serve no real purpose outside Russia. The US is aware of its wrongdoings in Guantanamo and the secret CIA prisons in Western Europe, European countries are perhaps aware of their human rights violations. If the ratings then serve the Russian audience, and Russia really has no need to use the freedom index in the way the US uses it, then the whole notion of a Russian freedom index resembles a mild propaganda machine for the purpose of countering the assessments of agencies such as Freedom House.

The index of journalistic freedoms of the Russian press, however, if properly implemented, may become a successful idea. Especially given that the goal is to assess the regional press as well as the federal press. The regional press in Russia, often pressured by the local authorities, rather than the Kremlin, can use a shake-up from the Federal authorities. A good basis for this would be the newly created Russian journalistic ratings system.


Randy said...

Although I would agree that the motivation behind the Russian freedom index is a mild attempt at creating a positive spin for a domestic audience, you strike a chord when you hint at the hypocrisy of the United States. The Russian's, I believe, rightfully so deserve the embarrassement and exposure that a Freedom House Index can provide. However, it is just as important that another strong agency, maybe even the Russian agency, take a serious look at the United States and document the inherent indignities, and hypocrisy built within and nurtured for the last six years. The fact that the U.S. is the only stable democracy in the world to have the death penalty - an imperfect system where innocent people die - is a gross violation of a person's civil liberities not to mention the biggest human's right abuse possible to commit. In addition, the U.S. claims it wants to spread "freedom," transperancy, and justice. Yet, under this present administration, Guantanamo exists, we fund oil states in the Gulf which help breed extremism, and we refuse to adhere to the Geneva Convention. Not to mention, on a domestic level we got rid of haebus corpus, it was confirmed that we monitor domestic phone calls of citizens without a warrant, and we insist that large phone companies such as Verizon et al. hand over their phone records to the NSA for further inspection. This is all in the name of "freedom." I never have and never will buy the notion that one must restrict freedoms in order to preserve them. I guess maybe our restrictions on freedoms don't count in Western Freedom Indexes, but it sure would be interesting if Russia steps beyond its propaganda role and really does document all of the hypocrisies; forcing the same condemnation from the international community that the Russian's received for their poor scores in the Freedom House Index.

nikolay i. said...

However, it is just as important that another strong agency, maybe even the Russian agency, take a serious look at the United States and document the inherent indignities, and hypocrisy built within and nurtured for the last six years.

Randy, much agreed. We can also put in attacking a country thousands of miles away with a rag-tag alliance of the willing for a fake reason in the US "freedom" basket. Chechnya resembles a kindergarten dispute compared to Iraq.

The US as any country should be subject to a worldwide assessment of human rights/freedoms and others. But, in a perfect world, neither Russia, nor the US should conduct such analysis. In our world, one filled with double standards, biases, and constant political confrontations in the IR sphere, a country's comments on such issues will be wasted efforts.

The only real reason the Freedom House rankings worry me is the fact that some US institutional investors, such as CALPERS (California pension system) look at these ratings and US State Department assessments to decide whether to invest in assets in a country where freedom is worrisome. Russia is losing several billions of FDI money from US institutional investors for that specific reason. Otherwise, I would doubt Europe devotes much attention to Freedom House rankings; European institutions with the EU have their own assessments and judgments about freedoms.

The UN is the only viable institution able to provide such assessments, but it has been far from efficient at such initiatives. The UN's Human Rights Commission failure is one such example. A Human Rights commission attached to the UN should include countries not involved in the great foreign policy games of today. Ideally, Finland, Sweden, Canada, Austria, New Zealand, and the like.

Another factor that just occurred to me, which is hard for rankings to take into account is the degree to which freedoms are valued in each country. I was born with the belief that my phones were not a secure means of conversation; yet I never considered it a limit to my freedom, as long as the judicial system works properly I am OK. My point is that people's freedoms perceptions differ in every country. Also the Freedom House rankings and rankings of similar situations do not make the distinction of how the people are well off as a result of existing freedoms.

I think the Index of Economic Freedom once ranked Sierra Leone above Russia; after a question by a Russian journalist asking for explanations, one of the authors said that because Sierra Leone has no viable government, it cannot intervene into business freedoms. The fact of a recently ended civil war in the country did not interest the authors of the index.