Alexis de Tocqueville observed that a free press is “the chief democratic instrument of freedom.” Today, this bit of conventional wisdom pops up in the demands of human rights groups and the ideals of American foreign policy: Where a free press flourishes, democracy will surely follow. One small problem: In countries with autocratic regimes, a free press may actually incite an increase in human rights abuses.
Jenifer Whitten-Woodring, a political scientist at the University of Southern California, argues that a free press can only reduce human rights violations such as political imprisonment, murder, disappearance, and torture if citizens have a means of holding their leaders accountable. Where leaders rule with impunity, critical media coverage has the opposite effect—regimes crack down on journalists and political activists. Whitten-Woodring’s case rests on a complex statistical analysis of evidence from 93 countries between 1981 and 1995, and is illustrated by the experiences of Uganda and Mexico during those years.
In Mexico in the 1990s, the news media became “increasingly independent and critical of the government,” exposing massacres of peasants and other atrocities committed by the incumbent regime. Did reform follow? Quite the opposite. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, as the Mexican press became more dogged in its reporting, journalism became a more dangerous occupation. Over time, however, persistent coverage of government scandals helped strip the regime of its legitimacy, and in 2000 the Institutional Revolutionary Party lost the presidency after more than 70 years of single-party rule. But in Uganda, a feisty press continues without success. Reporters there run roughshod over President Yoweri Moseveni’s attempts to tamp down their reports of massive human rights violations, but he remains at the helm, as he has since 1986.
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The Source: "Watchdog or Lapdog? Media Freedom, Regime Type, and Government Respect for Human Rights" by Jenifer Whitten-Woodring, in International Studies Quarterly, September 2009.
Photo courtesy of Flickr/Marion Doss