To what extent does free and independent media contribute to good governance and what are the consequences for human development? This book chapter published by Internews Europe examines the results of a large-N cross-sectional comparison analysing the impact of press freedom on multiple indicators of democracy and good governance. The study seeks to test the hypothesis that where the media functions effectively as a watch-dog, a civic forum and an agenda-setter it helps to promote democracy, good governance and thus human development. Findings support claims that the free press is important, both intrinsically and instrumentally, as a major component of democracy and good governance.
The growth of the free press and the process of democratisation are thought to enhance each other. It is claimed that: (1) the transition from autocracy opens up the media to private ownership, broadens access to the media, and reduces government control of information; (2) the media then directly contributes to democratisation and governance by serving as a watch-dog (promoting accountability and transparency), a civic forum (allowing multiple voices to be heard) and an agenda-setter (highlighting social problems); (3) political freedoms and a free press contribute indirectly to human development by encouraging government responsiveness to public concerns. There is however a lack of evidence and relatively little comparative research to support these claims. Furthermore, most existing research focuses on the impact of media access, rather than on that of press freedom.
This study finds that the free press is significantly associated with levels of democracy, irrespective of the indicator of democracy used. (The impact of media liberalisation was the most consistent predictor of democracy, and was even stronger than wealth.) Further, countries where much of the public has access to the free press usually have greater political stability, rule of law, government efficiency in the policy process, regulatory quality, and the least corruption. Other findings relate to the global distribution of press freedom:
- There are significant regional variations, with the highest levels of press freedom found in industrialised nations (including the most affluent economies and longest-standing democracies). Latin America and South-East Asia enjoy relatively high levels of press freedom, while Arab states appear to have the lowest levels.
- There are also considerable variations within Latin America, Africa and Asia. Some countries with low levels of economic development have high levels of press freedom (such as Benin and Mali).
A free and independent media is integral to the process of democratisation and good governance, and ultimately to human development. This study did not attempt to highlight indirect benefits of the free press on human development; however, other studies indicate the plausibility of the assumption that improvements in democracy and good governance contribute indirectly to poverty alleviation by making governments more accountable and responsive to need. Donors should note that:
- It is important to support policies which eradicate barriers to the free exchange of information and communication. Such barriers include state censorship, the intimidation of journalists, or the domination of the private media by a few large suppliers.
- Additional research is needed to determine which of the three roles of the freedom of the press – watch-dog, civic forum and agenda-setter – is most closely connected with which processes of democratisation and good governance. Detailed country case studies may be required.
- Time-series analysis of developments over time may provide greater insight into reciprocal relationships between the government and the media.