24 Jun

On-Site PhD conferral Erich de la Fuente

Supervisor: Prof. dr. Michael Cichon

Co-supervisors: Dr. Mindel van de Laar, Dr. Eduardo A Gamarra, Florida International University

Keywords: News media freedom, digital news media, democracy, government instruments

"LIMITING MEDIA FREEDOM IN DEMOCRATIC STATES: How Governments Use Instruments to Curtail News Media Freedom"

One of the most important pillars of modern democracies is media freedom, which enables independent media outlets to freely investigate and report on government actions to the public. Democracy and news media freedom often have been assumed to have an intrinsic link, but by the mid-2010s, reports from international watchdog organizations pointed to a new reality: The existence of democratic countries with declining press freedom.

The objective of this research was to understand how governments influence news media freedom in young democracies in the digital era. It also sought to identify the main categories of instruments used to curb media freedom, what the individual instruments used in each category were, and how governments have used those instruments to influence the editorial content of media outlets.

The empirical findings of this research led to a principal conclusion: Even in free democracies, and especially young ones, governments can and do use subtle, difficult-to-detect tools to curb media freedom to maintain power. Preferred instruments fell into two categories—economic pressure tools and nonphysical harassment of journalists.

Employing subtle media control instruments can be an early sign of declining levels of media freedom in free democracies. If they are not thwarted, they can further erode press freedom, a key pillar of democracy. When considering how some formerly free democracies slid into the partly free category in recent years, a wider theoretical conclusion can be drawn: Governments that move from free to illiberal democracies are likely to curb media freedom during this process, as it can help them remain in power. Many likely will have sought to limit press freedom through subtle means until they reached a “visibility threshold.” At this point their media control efforts become apparent and these instruments are put aside in favor of more visible and overt tools as the country’s democracy slides from free to partly free.

Finally, this dissertation provides three practical policy recommendations that aim to protect news media freedom even in democratic governments seeking to limit it. First, international watchdog organizations should make identifying and counteracting the erosion of news media freedom a priority in its early stages. Second, development agencies should provide financial support to nascent digital-only news media outlets in democracies. And third, governments, parliaments and international bodies should support legislation requiring internet platforms (i.e., Google, Facebook) to compensate news media outlets for the use of their content.

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