Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

Can a Free Press Hurt?

Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

Can a Free Press Hurt?

Article excerpt

THE SOURCE: "Watchdog or Lapdog? Media Freedom, Regime Type, and Government Respect for Human Rights" by Jenifer Whitten-Woodring, in International Studies Quarterly, Sept. 2009.

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. …

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