July 4, 2012 | by BERND RATMEYER
The SGI project measures and compares the policy success of states. A comparison of press freedom in Hungary and Germany shows how it works.
December 2011: The Hungarian Government denies Klubradio, an independent radio station, its radio frequency. This represents a high point of an undemocratic program of media control, which commenced with restrictive media legislation that attracted strong criticism from all over the world.
Hungary is an OECD member state, and has been a member of the EU since 2004. This entails an obligation to respect democratic institutions. Thus, the principle of an independent media is embedded in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. In terms of democracy, Hungary is compelled to sustain comparison with other states founded on the rule of law.
Is There a Better Way?
That is precisely the question the Bertelsmann Stiftung addresses with the SGI project. The ‘Sustainable Governance Indicators’ comprise 147 indicators which tap into the strengths and weaknesses of 31 OECD member states, and thereby measure no more or less than ‘good, sustainable governance’. It’s about the sustainability of modern states, their need for reform and, perhaps even more importantly, their capacity to reform. Hungary duly underperforms where the study compares freedom of the press across a range of countries: Achieving a score of five points out of a possible ten, it finds itself in the bottom five countries.
Tell Me Where You Stand…
Lists fascinate us - they illustrate what would otherwise be difficult to comprehend, and mark out clear positions. Take a look at Germany: Its overall rating, based on the 147 indicators, sees it ranked no. 8 in the Status Index (which measures the need for democratic reform and ranks the 31 OECD countries in terms of sustainable performance in 15 central policy areas). A respectable ranking in the top third. However: where do things stand in relation to freedom of the press, and freedom of information? The ‘Media Quality’ category in the SGI ‘Management Index’ (which measures the reform capacity of OECD states) analyses the extent to which the media provides high quality and diverse information. Here, too, Germany is defending eighth place. In the Media Plurality indicator, which shows the extent to which the structure of media ownership ensures a plurality of opinion, Germany even reaches tenth place!
Lists are Sensitive Creatures
This good ranking was to be expected. The indicators, however, also provide a seismic illustration of policy development - this includes media policy legislation and the associated implementation, and an analysis of media content and formats, in addition to individual events. The freedom of the press may be a big concept, but it comprises numerous discrete aspects including independence, variety, quality and freedom of information.
The SGI experts, for example, observe whether the supervisory boards of public broadcasters are influenced by the State, or the Church. In this context, the SGI report on media in Germany examines the case of Nikolaus Brender, editor-in-chief of ZDF, a German public-service television broadcaster. The supervisory board, with a majority of members associated with the German Christian Democratic Union political party, declined to extend Brender’s contract at the end of 2009. According to numerous experts in media and law, this was blatant interference with broadcasting independence.
The indicators also react sensitively when it comes to freedom of information: While freedom of information legislation has been in place since 2006, German public authorities continue to cling to archaic notions of ‘professional confidentiality’. For citizens, the inspection of official documents remains associated with substantial effort and cost. The indicator that reflects access to government information relegates Germany to seventh place in this regard.
Similarly, the indicators measure the quality of the media’s treatment of information: The SGI report registers a “biting deficiency” in investigative journalism, a frequent lack of financial resources, which hinders effective research, an exceedingly trusting reliance on government statements, and an unfortunate tendency towards infotainment among the public broadcasters. Here, Germany scores a mere 5.3 (in comparison: Norway attains a rating of 9.4). This relatively low value does not, however, put Germany’s solid eighth ranking in the slightest danger.
This is Not Hungary
The indicators evidence the overall high democratic standards, and commitment to the rule of law, that press freedom and media diversity make possible. At the same time, the indicators do justice to the complex topic of ‘the media’: They pursue and register individual events, inconspicuous changes to legislation, laws that are implemented badly (or not at all), and the influence of political parties.
By the way - in almost every category it’s Norway, Sweden and Finland, with impressive regularity, that occupy the prime placings in the upper spheres of the top group.
Translated from the German by Rogan O’Shannessy