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Watchdog or lapdog? Media freedom and government respect for human rights

2009 paper in International Studies Quarterly on the impact of media freedom on human rights, dependant on the presence of other democratic institutions

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,” 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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