Recently, the Reporters Without Borders launched its new press freedom index. Both the organization and its rankings share dark legacies however.
WHEN the new World Press Freedom Index (WPFI) was recently released, the Philippines ranked 138th out of 180 countries. Typically, ABS-CBN, CNN Philippines, Rappler and the Philippine Daily Inquirer reported that the country’s media freedom was plunging.
In practice, the Philippines remains ahead of seven other Asean countries, and the ranking was equivalent to the former Aquino administration’s best performance.
More importantly, perhaps, the WPFI, which is published by the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF), was founded by a white supremacist. It fails to capture essential dimensions of media freedoms. And it is funded by institutional, corporate and foundations, which have their own agendas.
RSF founder’s white supremacist ventures
Most media NGOs are led by veteran journalists, whereas the RSF founder’s experience was limited to a pirate radio station and an unpopular magazine that had to be closed down. It was then in 1985 that Robert Ménard and three of his colleagues co-founded the Reporters sans Frontières (RSF). As the first secretary general, Ménard ruled the RSF for over a quarter of a century, like the autocrats the organization opposed. In the process, he managed to alienate all other co-founders.
The stated aim of the RSF is to safeguard the right to freedom of information. Yet, Ménard’s great political ambitions have always overshadowed his limited journalistic credentials. In spring 2008, Ménard and his colleagues tried to disrupt the lighting of the Olympic Flame before the Beijing Summer Olympics, as a protest for Tibetan civil rights. The stunt coincided with campaigns by US neoconservatives, CIA and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), which have funded RSF activities.
Ménard grew up in a family with links to the far-right terrorist OAS, a French paramilitary group that contributed to Algeria’s massacres in the 1950s and terrorism in France, including assassination attempts against President Charles de Gaulle.
At the end of his RSF reign, Ménard embraced the far right publicly. Since 2014, he has served as mayor of Béziers in Southern France. A known Islamophobic, he has warned Muslim refugees they are not welcome in France. He promotes the white genocide conspiracy whose adherents believe that “Jews and globalists” seek to replace French whites with Muslims from the Middle East.
Recently, the RSF has been led by Christophe Deloire, who is more cautious in public but shares Ménard’s geopolitics and touts the RSF’s new Information and Democracy Forum. Like his predecessor, Deloire has managed to alienate his organization, thanks to restructuring, departures and layoffs.
Funders, regime change
From Ménard to Deloire, the RSF has cherished odd bedfellows. Amid the 2002 coup against Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, the RSF sided with the plotters as it did in the coups against Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Manuel Zelaya in Honduras and Evo Morales in Bolivia. According to critics, as Ménard and his colleagues have acknowledged, the RSF has cooperated and coordinated with the US State Department against Cuba, Bolivia, Venezuela and Nicaragua.
The regime-change activities have been funded by USAid Cuba Program, “Freedom of Information” initiatives, National Endowment for Democracy (NED). In return, the Bush administration financed RSF and like-minded nongovernment organizations (NGOs). In 2007, the thankful RSF justified the Iraq invasion with Ménard arguing for the legitimacy of torture.
Similar interest convergence seems to mark activities also in the Middle East (Libya, Iran and Iraq). In 2017, RSF opened its first bureau in Asia; that is, in Taiwan, in convergence with the Trump administration and the Taiwanese government.
Today, the RSF’s budget is 6.1 million euros. It funds only 20 percent of its activities internally, however. Consequently, over 40 percent is based on “institutional grants” (French foreign ministry, French defense ministry), whereas 35 percent stems from “private foundations and NGOs” (e.g., NED, Ford Foundation) and “corporate and individual donations” (e.g., American Express, French bank Société Générale).
Reportedly, in return for French and US funds, the RSF remains silent about media abuses in the West and France, as the French daily Libération has complained.
Index bias, funder views
Behind the official facade, the RFS’ Press Freedom Index has attracted much controversy. Officially, the WPFI is determined by pooling the responses of experts to a questionnaire devised by RSF. But the devil is in the details.
When a limited sample of some 150 respondents and 18 NGOs are asked to analyze and respond to 87 questions for each country, the degree of prejudicial bias rises accordingly.
Moreover, many of the very same NGOs are said to be funded by the RSF. The same goes for the correspondents, researchers, jurists and human rights activists, which are said to be selected by the correspondents.
Since the RSF lacks adequate internal funding, corporate and foundation sponsors have a major indirect role.
A simple example: Even as the Philippine 2021 WFPI ranking fell, the Unesco World Press Freedom Prize was awarded to Rappler’s CEO Maria Ressa. In turn, Ressa has served as the prize jury’s member and as its president in the late 2010s. And like RSF and Rappler, many of these “freedom” organizations have been funded in part by billionaires Pierre Omidyar and George Soros via his Open Society.
As the net consequence of gross mis-estimations and misrepresentations, the gap between media realities and actual realities deepens — as evidenced by the Philippines.
One Philippines, two media worlds
In the recent media spectacles, the South China Sea has enjoyed a prominent role, as evidenced by Foreign Affairs Secretary Teddy Locsin Jr. tweet to China: “Get the f- out of Philippine waters.” Instead of criticism, Philippine media owned by Liberal Party supporters and foreign interests glorified such gross professional misconduct.
Whether such tweets and rhetoric target China, the United States or any other nation, they should be condemned as highly unprofessional and inappropriate.
Worse, the debacle was followed by an ABS-CBN News interview with Anders Corr, again portrayed as an independent analyst. He applauded Locsin’s tweet as a “very courageous statement.” In 2017, Corr predicted the Philippine debt-to-GDP would soar to 300 percent, due to “China’s debt slavery.” At the time, I predicted he was off by almost 250 percentage points, which proved to be the case, despite pandemic debt.
According to Corr, his clients are mainly Pentagon agencies and Taiwan’s government, while his commentaries are released by the far-right Epoch Times (whose cultist believers anticipate a Judgment Day when they will go to heaven while communists are sent to hell). Those are the hands that feedsCorr. But why would Philippine media offer a voice to such “analysts”?
In the past weeks, President Rodrigo Duterte, who, according to independent surveys, enjoys the support of more than 90 percent of Filipinos, has shown remarkable restraint during the orchestrated South China Sea media campaigns. Some other government members and certainly the opposition haven’t.
One Philippines, two media worlds.
In her 2019 interview with the US TV show “60 Minutes,” Ressa portrayed the Philippines as “worse than any war zone” she’s been in, stating she’d been living in “this kind of hell” for many years. Yet, like some other “staunch critics” of the Duterte government, Ressa has dual US-Filipino citizenship and nice upscale properties in both countries, although Rappler is no cash cow and remains in a legal quagmire.
Perhaps the lesson is that living in hell can be a lucrative business.
Dr. Dan Steinbock is an internationally recognized strategist of the multipolar world and the founder of Difference Group. He has served at the India, China and America Institute (USA), Shanghai Institutes for International Studies (China) and the EU Center (Singapore). For more, see https://www.differencegroup.net