RSF President Pierre Haski: Our survey is not designed to be representative

I would be surprised if in any one country more than ten people fill out our form

There is a panel of people in each country. Then the figures are gathered in Paris and made into the index. Not everyone who is involved in the media production is supposed to be involved, says Reporters Without Borders President Pierre Haski in a conversation with Telegraph Media.

Mr Haski, let us first thank you for meeting us. We tried to contact Reporters Without Borders (RSF) over the last two years, but we experienced some problems with that. We are here to discuss the activities of RSF in Bulgaria in particular. There is an ongoing discussion in the country on the activities of RSF over the last two years now. There are people - including us - who think that RSF is being used and manipulated by certain circles in Bulgaria. The reason is that there are obvious discrepancies between the RSF index - the index of the organisation you represent, and the ratings of other organisations. Freedom House for instance, which ranks us amongst the countries with full freedom of speech and media. The CATO Institute index, according to which we are 39th. And Eurobarometer, which also ranks us among the free countries. And here comes the RSF index, which ranks us 111th. We tried a number of times to contact Mr Deloire (Christophe Deloire, director general of RSF), but we were told that he was too busy to meet us.

Well, actually there is an international gathering in Paris this week of all the branches of RSF in the world with all the representatives. So he's been very busy organising this. I should mention that I am chairman of the board, I am not operational.

Well. We tried to contact everybody who is or used to be involved in the activities of RSF.

Mr Deloire was in Bulgaria recently. He met the prime minister. Why didn't you meet him there?

We invited him to meet with us, but he didn't respond. We sent him a letter as well, he didn't respond either. We have been trying to contact him for two years now, but still - no response.

Well, that's a surprise.

Yes, that is surprising for us as well. Because we are actually looking for answers. We are here to have a discussion.

I am not necessarily the good person to give you the answers, because I can be a good listener but I am not operational in the sense that I am not really involved in the day-to-day running of the organisation. I am chairing the board meetings and doing missions for RSF, but I am not into day-to-day running of the organisation -  that is the job of Christophe Deloire. So I cannot give you answers why Bulgaria is 111th and not 39th. I am not involved in that process. All I know is that the process has been going on for years. It is quite referential today. It has been used all over the world. No one is happy with it. Except Norway, which is number one.

It is not a matter of happiness here. We speak of facts.

Maybe there are certain data on which you can argue, things, but the discrepancy between 39 and 111 is too big to be a matter of details.

Yes, and we can give you some examples. In 2018 for instance, a journalist was murdered in Ghana. There were examples of abuse of power by the authorities against journalists. And yet it ranks 27th. In Bulgaria we didn't have these kinds of problems and yet we are 111th. What actually is disturbing here is the method, the survey you use to gather the information. Telegraph Media for example is one of the leading publishing groups but no one working for it has ever been contacted by RSF. Other colleagues we know, from other media, have not been contacted either.

But that is not the way the index is being made. There is a panel of people in each country. Then the figures are gathered in Paris and made into the index, and I don't think that you should be contacted in the process. To be clear - what is the purpose for your mission, on whose behalf are you here?

We are here to receive answers to our questions.

On whose behalf?

On behalf of the group we represent.

Which is part of a group which is controversial. Which is part of the equation.

In what sense?

It is a huge group…

We are one of the leading groups, although not exactly huge - it has six editions.

But also, it is involved in the distribution, if I understand well.

It is not involved in the distribution. That is why we are telling you that you have been misled.

Look, I am not in charge of the Bulgarians desk at RSF, so I read just a few things to prepare myself for this meeting and I saw that your group is part of - let's say - of the media freedom equation in Bulgaria.

And what we are telling you is that you should check the credibility of your information. In Bulgaria there are two unions of publishers. Telegraph Media is part of the Bulgarian Media Union as well as of a number of groups which publish newspapers. The other union is the Union of the Bulgarian Publishers, which represents mainly online publications. The Bulgarian Media Union has never been approached by RSF. The only union you keep contact with is the Union of the Bulgarian Publishers, so you get only their point of view and repeat what they claim. Let me tell you more - when someone says that our publishing group is involved with the distribution, they are lying to you. You can check it in the public registers of the country, we can show them to you. Besides the registers, there is something else. We ourselves have experienced problems with the distribution of the newspapers which are part of our group. That is why we welcomed the decision of the government to take control over the distribution via Bulgarian Post. For us this is perfect because we really do have problems with the distribution. But you didn't even know that. Because you didn't contact us, so no one told you this.

But the panel that gives us the assessment of the situation year after year is not done from Paris, it is done from Sofia.

Well, this is exactly the problem. We think that the people who take part in it are misleading you.

Well, the thing is that when Christophe Deloire was in Sofia he was received by the prime minister and they seemed to have had quite a constructive dialogue. The idea was how to improve things with the index. How to get higher in the index.

Look, we are not here as representatives of the government, we are not part of it. We are journalists, and we are here to tell you that there are other problems. Because we have read blatant lies about the editions we represent and about the country itself. That is why we want to know how exactly you check the information you receive.

I cannot give you the answer because as I said I am chairman of the board, I am not operational. You speak of lies about your country. But if we had this dialogue with the prime minister, it is about the country. So it is not that we are enemies of Bulgaria, that we try to smear Bulgaria, or whatever. What I mean is that we have this dialogue with the government, which is a very good thing because many countries that have bad ranking, they just complain and attack us, and they don't dialogue on how to improve things. I was not present at the meeting but my guess is that they discussed concrete measures particularly on distribution. That is very positive and if they are implemented it should improve the ranking of Bulgaria. It is a very positive and constructive approach - to discuss and put all the issues. I know that you are not the prime minister but I mean that whatever problems there were, they must have been discussed during that meeting.

Well, we are not sure.

Why?

Because you are speaking about distribution although we already told you that we had nothing to do with it and we have welcomed the idea of the government to get involved in the process. But we speak of different problems here. There is a problem with the reliability of the surveys you conduct. And I will give you two specific examples about how your organisation has been misled. The first one took place about two years ago. There was this conference about the freedom of speech. It was organised by the Union of the Bulgarian Publishers to promote its so-called White Paper on the Freedom of Speech. I hope that we will meet again so next time I will bring you the paper to discuss all instances of misinformation in it. What is important right now is that there was a representative of RSF - Ms Pauline Ades-Mevel. She saw how half of the media representatives who wanted to attend the conference were literally kicked out of the discussion by the organisers, and she did not react at all. We speak of a brutal example of censorship, and your representative did not react. The second example is a very brutal one. Viktoria Marinova - a Bulgarian TV host, a young woman, mother of a child, was brutally murdered about a year ago. One Bulgarian online media outlet claimed that she was murdered because of an investigation they were conducting, and you took this for being the actual truth. And yet it was a brutal lie. Her family even had to appear publicly just to say: “Please, stop abusing her death.” It was proven that she was not murdered because of her profession. The killer was arrested in Germany. The German authorities checked all the evidence, and they confirmed that the evidence proved that the arrested is the killer. They provided it to the Bulgarian justice system, and he is already convicted. Yet RSF repeated the lie that Viktoria was murdered because of her job, which has nothing to do with the truth. 

I remember very well this incident. As far as I remember, there was a lot of speculations in the initial phase but it was always careful to say that it was for professional reasons. And you have to understand the context. It came after the Malta and Slovakia murders. But definitely after a few days, especially after the detention in Germany, it was clear that it was not for professional reasons.

Yet, in your reports, you still say that it was for professional reasons. You can check it in the Bulgarian section. And you were misled.

At least I will ask the questions, I will relay the conversation to the relevant people. But you know, I have been contacted many times by even the president of Guinea in Africa, whom I know very well. And he took me on Twitter and he said - Uhhhhh, Guinea went down four ranks on the RSF index because you want to prevent my re-election next year. And I told him - look, everybody is unhappy about the ranking. All they want is to be better ranked. It has nothing to do with your re-election. It is funny because last year France went up and many people complained in France and said: Why RSF says France is improving when there are many things that are going down? The problem is that some European countries, including Malta, went down more. And it is a ranking. That is why France went up. Because others went down.

I am sorry for interrupting, but we speak of a ranking which as far as Bulgaria is concerned is based on misinformation. It is biased. And that is a problem. If there was a larger range of sources, the picture might have been more clear. Let me quote an article published by one of the national dailies in Bulgaria. According to it, your survey is based literally on the opinion of 10 persons, who fulfil your questionnaires in Bulgaria. Is that really so? Because only the print editions in Bulgaria are around 244 and the journalists in Bulgaria are more than 10,000, which means that the percentage of the people fulfilling the survey are not even within the standard error in statistics. You are near the zero.

But you are confusing the way this report is being done.

That is exactly why we are asking you how the survey is conducted.

Not every journalist is supposed to fill the form.

Yes, but the ranking is supposed to be representative!

It is a panel. It is a panel of journalists, of researchers, of people who have an overview on the situation, not everyone who is involved in the media production is supposed to be involved. So 10 people is even a lot. It doesn't matter whether it is in the US or China, it is not a question of population, it is a question of whether these people have the capacity to have an overview.

Well, this is exactly the question.

I don't know who these people are, but my understanding from the way it is being done around the world - maybe Bulgaria is the bad case, I don't know - but the way it is being done, I don't think that these people are more than 10 in other countries. I would be surprised because that would make it impossible to manage. Can you imagine if you have a thousand people who fill the form in each country?! That means ten thousand forms to process! It is an impossible task! The idea is to have people with an overview. So you might say they are biased, they are liars, they are manipulators, whatever…

Biased at the least…

… That is a fair point, but this I cannot answer because I do not know them. And I do not know how they were selected. But the idea is not to have a thousand people as a representative sample of the profession. It is to have people who have a wider view.

OK, but you do have two unions in this country and you know this. If we speak of an overview, doesn't it make sense, if you have a representative from one of the unions, to invite someone from the other one?

They are not representing companies in this panel.

They are representing points of view. Isn't that the idea?

No, they are representing capacity to analyse the situation.

How exactly do you chose them? How do you know that they have this capacity?

People who work in the university, for example. People who are researchers. I don't know who they are in the case of Bulgaria, but in each country they are not only journalists. They are also academics.

So - academics and journalists. Then, in general, how do you chose them? How do you know they are unbiased? In the case of Bulgaria they represent only one point of view. You are actually telling us that you have three or four journalists from one of the unions.

We did not chose them because they are employed by it. Everybody is selected individually because of their capacity to do the job. And they are chosen by the person in charge in Paris for this person - its Pauline in this case.

The same person who did not interfere when half of the media representatives were kicked out at the conference of the Union of the Bulgarian Publishers.

Look, I cannot go any further. I will talk to her and try to understand. But I cannot go any further, and my starting point is that the job is being correctly done unless I am proved wrong. But I understand your point of view, I hear it and I will convey it. I promise you answers.

Yes, please, and we are waiting for them. Because as we already pointed out, we have other issues in Bulgaria, different from the ones you point out in your reports. The conference about the so-called White Paper on the Freedom of Speech was organised for instance by a publisher who was charged with financial fraud and money laundering. And yet he claims that he was indicted because of the editorial policies of his media. He is actually using his media as a shield against the investigation proceedings.

But isn't this the case with all the media groups in Bulgaria. From what I understand, your group also has judicial problems.

Not at all.

The owner?

On the contrary - he has actually been checked by all the authorities in the country, and all inspections have proved that he is clean. The majority of the publishers in the country do not have any judicial problems, unlike the people we already spoke of. The same people who organised the aforementioned conference.

 

The recording of this conversation is being kept in our office. It was made with the explicit consent of RSF President Pierre Haski, who is the only representative of the organisation that has met with us after numerous attempts to contact the NGO's operational leadership, as represented by RSF Secretary General Christoph Deloire.

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