Monday, April 02, 2012

How to misuse statistics: Israel accused of jailing too many journalists (updated x3)

From Justin Martin at Columbia Journalism Review:

At the end of each year, the Committee to Protect Journalists counts the number of journalists imprisoned worldwide and lists the countries in which they’re locked up.

These data are very helpful, but I think we can consider them under a new lamp by taking into account each country’s size. China and Eritrea, for example, have about the same number of journalists rotting in prison, 27 and 28 respectively. But the population of China is over 250 times that of the small dictatorship.

Any country that unjustly arrests or imprisons a single journalist is democratically suspect, of course, and that includes you, America. Ratings of press freedom in the United States tanked after 2011, as counts of arrested journalists in this country soared. Still, though police in the United States tend to arrest journalists filming or otherwise documenting unrest, their bosses usually get embarrassed at the media blowback and drop the charges. Imprisoning journalists for months or years at a time is another matter and, other than the outright murder of journalists in places like Russia and Syria, the long-term jailing of reporters is the offense with which the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is most concerned.

For a new take on this scourge, I quickly calculated the highest twelve ratios of jailed journalists to a country’s population size.

So we see that according to this criterion, Israel jails more journalists per capita than any other nation except for Eritea.

Sounds damning, right?

Except that it is a meaningless statistic. The size of the country's population has nothing to do with how many journalists are in the country. Israel has far more journalists than most countries that are much larger, because there is such intense interest in Israel. Moreover, Israel is liberal in allowing journalists to have access to the nation, as opposed to, say, practically every other nation in the Middle East.

If you want to see which nations jail the most reporters per-something, you must compare it to the total number of reporters - not the total population of the nation. To restate the question - if you are a reporter in Country X, what are the odds that you will be arrested? Comparing the number of jailed journalists to the total population of the nation doesn't tell you anything meaningful.

This is not to blame Justin Martin at CJR - at first blush his metric sounds like it might be meaningful - but his initial assumption is completely wrong.

Unfortunately, I cannot find immediately how many journalists are in Israel. Here's a list of journalists per million in North America and here's one with newspaper journalists per million for many other countries, but not Israel. I would be willing to bet that if you find out those numbers, and look at number of jailed reporters per thousand reporters, you will see Israel going way, way down that list.

This is all besides the fact of the circumstances of the imprisonment, which is a whole other topic. Given that Arab media openly says that their journalists are part of the war against Israel, it is but a small step for some of them to step over that line. But even without going into that, this is a perfect example of a statistic that sounds like it is illuminating some truth - and in fact it is obscuring it.

UPDATE: I was too charitable. Martin really dislikes Israel and chances are pretty good that he gleefully published this metric just to castigate the Jewish state.  (h/t Soccer Dad)

UPDATE 2: Comments from an email correspondent about the underlying CPJ study:
The CPJ report says that Hamas has jailed three journalists. Divide 3 by 1.5 million (the population of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip according to the Palestinian Authority) and you have a jail-rate that dwarfs Israel. Does the CJR (Columbia Journalism Review) article’s failure to mention this indicate anything about the author’s (Justin Martin) agenda? Does Martin’s statement that “Israel, though, wants to be called a modern democracy and gets cranky when critics point out that it is not” tell us anything about his agenda?

The CPJ report tells us nothing about its methodology: how it conducted its “census,” how it decided who to classify as a “journalist,” etc. Even if it had a reliable methodology for figuring out what journalists were arrested where, the CRJ would still not pretend to be comprehensive; it claims only to be “a snapshot of those incarcerated at midnight on December 1, 2011” that does “not include the many journalists imprisoned and released throughout the year.”

The CPJ report tells us nothing about how it examined the charges; there is nothing to indicate that all the persons who were arrested were in fact arrested due to journalistic activity, rather than say, contempt of court or activities on behalf of a terrorist organization. For instance, the CJR report lists Raed al-Sharif as a jailed journalist, while also telling us that Israel has stated that he was detained due to “involvement in terrorist activity.” It is worth noting that international law sometimes requires the jailing of journalists. For instance, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda convicted several Rwandans for genocide, incitement to genocide, and crimes against humanity committed by broadcasts on Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines. This is surely relevant to the detention of, for example, Walid Khalid Harb, director of the Hamas newspaper Falastin.

I noted last night in Twitter that the US arrested scores of journalists during the Occupy demonstrations. Also, I mentioned that just last month India arrested a journalist - an Iranian implicated in the terrorist bombing against Israeli embassy personnel. Being a journalist doesn't make one immune from being imprisoned when one does a crime.

UPDATE 3: Ahlam Tamimi helped plan and execute the Sbarro's massacre - and then came home to deliver  the news on a PA TV show. Is she one of those "journalists" who must be protected according to the CJP? (h/t Arnold and Frimet Roth, parents of one of the victims)