According to its own website, Freedom House is "an independent watchdog organisation that supports the expansion of freedom around the world". It "supports democratic change, monitors freedom, and advocates for democracy and human rights". At the end of last month (29 April 2010) the organisation published a report on Freedom of the Press 2010: A Global Survey of Media Independence. It was with interest, therefore, that we were able to meet the Director of Advocacy for Freedom House during her visit to Jordan on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day. Paula Schreifer met with selected intellectuals, journalists and politicians at a programme organised by the American University in Amman.
The meeting was interesting first of all because Jordan is still "Not Free" according to this latest report, but it was the classification of Israel as "Free" that drew the most comment.
Is it possible for a state to be called "free" when it oppresses not only some of its own citizens but also the population of the land it is occupying in defiance of international law? If your own journalists have freedom does that make you a "free" state even though your policies deprive others of the same freedom?
Many questions were put forward by participants during the discussion with Freedom House, under no illusions, of course, that there was going to be any chance to make the speaker change her mind. The press release issued by Freedom House on the release of its report stated, "Israel provided one of the few positive developments in the region, returning to Free from Partly Free status thanks to the removal of restrictions associated with the 2008 outbreak of war in the Gaza Strip, which had depressed the country's ranking in the 2009 survey." Paula Schreifer was convinced of the accuracy of her work but unable to convince any of the participants that Israel is a "free" state. You just have to look at the wording of that statement to see that Freedom House is not entirely the independent, impartial body it claims to be: "outbreak of war in Gaza" is an amazing way to describe Israel's brutal bombardment and invasion against a largely unarmed civilian population.
There is no doubt that the Israeli media enjoy a high degree of freedom and independence with the ability to access information; no doubt also that the average Israeli citizen has freedoms unknown to most Arab citizens in their own countries, especially with regards to freedom of opinion and expression, freedom of association and other such rights. However, Israel discriminates against its own non-Jewish citizens; this has been monitored by Israeli human rights organisations. Obviously, racist policies and practices are also much in evidence in Israel's treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank, Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. How impartial can Freedom House be if it is basing a judgement on freedom only on what Israel does within the 1967 borders and not on what it does against the people of the land it is occupying? What about Israel's discrimination against its Arab citizens? Does that not make it at best only "partly free"?
To be fair, the Freedom House report does say that the "Palestinian territories" are "not free"; it then lays the blame squarely on the Palestinian Authority, which relies on what Israel allows it to do in most aspects of life; the PA itself is not, therefore, entirely "free" of Israeli oppression and influence. It tries to rule while existing under a military occupation, so how could it ever hope to be really "free"?
Organisations like Freedom House which seek to monitor and judge human rights and freedoms around the world should have a special classification for those states which still colonise others. "Free" status should not be possible as long as, for example, Israel's occupation and colonisation of the West Bank continues. Freedom is a universal right and cannot be cherry-picked, to use a Freedom House phrase. Indeed, Paula Schreifer's boss at Freedom House, Jennifer Windsor, the Executive Director, said in its press release, "Freedom of expression is fundamental to all other freedoms. Rule of law, fair elections, minority rights, freedom of association, and accountable government all depend on an independent press which can fulfil its watchdog function." All of these freedoms are, of course, missing or severely restricted in the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel.
Any shortcomings in the methodology of Freedom House and its reports do not detract from the vital importance of monitoring and reporting on such issues internationally. We should not pull back from our efforts to achieve a free press and independent media across the Middle East. Whether or not the Israel-Palestine conflict is resolved, such freedoms should remain our goal.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.