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OPINION

Christensen: For the press, freedom a matter of safety

Britt Christensen

The recent tragedy at the Paris-based satire publication Charlie Hebdo thrust the issue of freedom of expression to the forefront of international debate. There was an outpouring of people adamantly defending free speech as a foundational principle to a healthy and free society.

Many advocates of free speech put forth their arguments as common sense; along the lines that obviously freedom of expression is important because, well, because it is. This begs the question, why is freedom of expression important? Are there data supporting the theoretical benefits of free speech?

There is evidence that freedom of expression protections are positively related to increased economic growth, democracy levels, sociopolitical stability, and nonviolent methods of conflict compared to violent methods.

Political communication researchers have long deemed a free and developed media system as democratically essential. In a democratic society, informed and engaged individuals weigh-in on societal affairs, making a free press instrumental. By and large, educating the public on matters of social and political concern falls to the media.

Freedom of expression contributes to the “marketplace of ideas,” a concept popularized by John Stuart Mill. Ideally, allowing individuals to voice diverse and even controversial ideas and opinions leads to desirable and vetted sociopolitical solutions. This permits people to air their grievances and works as a pressure release valve, helping to curb violent uprising by the population.

In a 2014 World Bank research project, Sanjukta Roy found that in Sub-Sahara Africa, developed media systems that maintained higher levels of press freedoms were linked to lower levels of political risk. In other words, countries that have freer media are less likely to experience violent political uprisings and transitions. In my dissertation research (forthcoming publication), I found that higher levels of press freedoms were strong predictors of sociopolitical stability across countries from 1980-2012, using Freedom House press ratings.

A 2008 UNESCO special report on press freedom and development discovered relationships between press freedoms, militarization, instability and violence. They found that press freedoms were more restricted in countries that spent more on military (the U.S. is an obvious outlier here). They also found that in countries that experienced more violence, journalists were more likely to be in danger, which influenced the media environment.

Britt Christensen, a contributor to InsideSources.com, is a researcher who received his Ph.D. from the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University.