Decoding press freedom: An analytical look at the RSF Rankings

  05-Jan-2021 11:34:21

Media RSF India rankings Media bias Freedom of Expression Modi

When the RSF (Reporters without borders) released its report on the press freedom index, it came under fire from many quarters in India. India's rank of 142 was a shift of just two points in the ranking, but its ranking below many of the poorest African countries came as a surprise. The Niti Aayog published a piece against the index, questioning its method and accusing the organization of lack of transparency and anti-Asia bias. The union minister for information and broadcasting said that he would “expose” the surveys that show India’s press freedom in a poor light. Even liberals like Shekhar Gupta, although acknowledging the poor state of the media, doubted the legitimacy of the rankings. In this article, we will explore the RSF rankings compare to similar indexes run by other agencies. In subsequent pieces, we will explore the more qualitative aspects of the RSF rankings and whether there is an “Anti-Modi” bias in the rankings.

A bit about the organizations used for comparison purposes

RSF is a french non-profit that advocates for journalist rights across the world. It is known for publishing the press freedom index since 2002. Cato Institute is a libertarian think tank based in the United States of America. It has been publishing the human freedom index since 2008. The Economist is a weekly newspaper and magazine based out of London. It started publishing the democracy index in 2006. International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) is an intergovernmental and un Observer organization. It publishes the global state of democracy indices.

For the comparison, I have used:

  1. The press freedom index of 2019

  2. The latest “expression and information” scores that are a part of the human freedom index

  3. The “civil liberties index” scores that are a constituent of the democracy index

  4. The constituents of media integrity which is one of the sub-indices of the global state of democracy indices

India's rankings basis the indexes

RSF ranking of India is worse than that given by Cato institute and IDEA. It is way worse than the one given by those by The Economist's civil liberties index.

Difference between RSF rankings and the other indices

This measure calculates the difference between the rankings indicates the difference between the indexes at a country level. A positive value indicates that the country was ranked lower (a rank number higher) by RSF. A negative value indicates that the country was ranked higher (a rank number lower) by RSF.

In The Economist’s Civil Liberty Score, India is in the top 5 of the countries that had the largest differential in the top half, whereas many other countries had larger differentials than India in the IDEA and Cato rankings.

Region Bias

Next, we look at whether certain regions tend to do worse/better in other indices vis-a-vis the RSF rankings.

The RSF index has given worse ranks to countries in Asia and Latin America and better ranks to ones in Western Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa.

Type of countries ahead of India

The Economist classifies the countries into Full Democracies, Flawed Democracies, Hybrid, and Authoritarian based on its freedom index. Taking that as the base we can find out the no. of countries ahead of India and their corresponding types

The RSF ranks 55 non-democracies (32 Hybrids and 23 regimes) which is way more than Cato institutes 29 and IDEA’s 27.

If we take the union of Cato institute and Idea, we get just 2 countries that are ahead of India and have authoritarian regimes

The exceptions

The following are the countries that have been ranked below India by all the other organizations except RSF:

It is mainly a combination of middle eastern and Sub-Saharan countries that for the most part have little or no independent media (even according to the RSF). The only eastern European country on the list is Kyrgyzstan which can be justified at the time of the publishing of the rankings but recently it has passed legislation that could seriously curtail press freedom. Afghanistan is a curious case. Though the current regime has supported the media, it is one of the most difficult places for a journalist to work in because of the Taliban's presence.


Even if you don’t consider The Economist’s civil liberty score—which is not a media indicator in the strictest sense of the word—the rankings given by RSF seem to be an outlier to the other rankings