Watchdog or Lapdog? Media Freedom, Regime Type and Government Respect for Human Rights
An often-cited reason for the importance of media freedom is that it can promote a government’s respect for human rights. Around the world, however, media freedom and democratic societies are not uniquely associated with each other; some democracies have government-controlled media, while some autocracies have allowed free media. Consequently, the true effectiveness of free media within different regime types in promoting respect for human rights is open to question.
A 2009 paper published in International Studies Quarterly, “Watchdog or Lapdog? Media Freedom, Regime Type and Government Respect for Human Rights” (PDF), explored the impact on human rights protection in countries with free media but differing regime types. Countries examined include Mexico, Uganda, and Iran.
The paper’s findings include:
- The influence of media freedom on government respect for human rights is negative for the most autocratic regimes and positive for only the most democratic regimes.
- To effectively defend human rights, a free media must operate alongside an unbiased judiciary within undistorted economic markets.
- The ability of free media to positively affect government respect for human rights depends on the professionalism of the media, and the presence of the key journalistic norm of objectivity.
- Without democratic outlets for dissent, institutional cycles of protest and repression are likely to evolve, as exemplified by Iran in the late 1990s.
Overall, the researcher suggests that free media within autocratic regimes are unlikely to be able to effectively promote human rights without supporting democratic institutions. Indeed, free media may have the opposite effect as autocratic regimes seek to stifle resulting protests.
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Note to instructor: The suggested assignments are designed for flexibility. They can be used in whole or part and can be adapted to a particular task -- for example, the newswriting assignments could be applied to the writing of the headline, the lead, the nut graph or the full story. Material from the assignments could also be combined with other material, for example, in the writing of a background, feature or local-angle story.
Read the International Studies Quarterly paper "Watchdog or Lapdog? Media Freedom, Regime Type, and Government Respect for Human Rights" (PDF).
- Summarize the paper in fewer than 40 words.
- Express the paper's key term(s) in language a lay audience can understand.
- Evaluate the paper's limitations. (For example: Do the results conflict with those of other reliable studies? Are there weaknesses in the paper's data or research design?)
Read the issue-related New York Times article "Ex-Chinese Officials Join in Call for Press Freedom."
- If you were to rewrite the article based on knowledge of the paper, what key changes would you make?
- Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the paper.
- Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the paper. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the paper but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the paper alone?
- Interview two sources with a stake in or knowledge of the issue. Be prepared to provide them with a short summary of the paper in order to get their response to it. Write a 400-word article about the paper incorporating material from the interviews.
- Spend additional time exploring the issue and then write a 1,200-word background article, focusing on major aspects of the issue.