Freer Markets, Freer Media – WSJ

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Sixty-five journalists were killed while plying their trade in 2017, according to a report from Reporters Without Borders. This was the grimmest detail from the organization’s press-freedom update, which depicts dark times for the media. This Monday, nine journalists were among at least 25 people killed in two bombings in Afghanistan.

Our suggestion to help make journalists safer around the world: Expand economic freedom. Press freedom is indispensable to democracy. But economic freedom is a necessary condition for freedom of the press. In modern times, there has never been a democratic society that respects individual rights without at least a minimum of economic freedom.

The first newspaper was launched in early-17th-century Germany because its publisher envisioned a profit-making opportunity—and he had the freedom to pursue the project. The principle persists today. In a real market economy, an avid defender of socialism will always have the possibility of finding donors, investors and readers to finance the dissemination of his opinions. But in an economy controlled by the government, diverging opinions will have greater difficulty being heard because of bureaucratic obstacles, the difficulty of finding financing, and even outright censorship. A good way to silence a media outlet is to tax or regulate it.

The freer a country is economically—and the more it facilitates the entry of new actors into the market—the greater the chance that the press will be free. A study just published by the Montreal Economic Institute confirms this strong and significant link.

In Western Europe and North America, free markets and a free press generally go together. Countries with a low level of economic freedom—think Venezuela, Bolivia, Argentina or Algeria—also have a low level of press freedom. By increasingly controlling and regulating their economies over the past decade and a half, the governments of these countries have substantially wounded the media.

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Interestingly, economic freedom is most conducive to press freedom in poorer parts of the world. The strength of the relationship between the two freedoms is twice as strong in low- or lower-middle-income countries than in the highest-income countries.

Certainly, free markets do not by themselves guarantee more press freedom. Singapore has a high level of economic freedom but a low level of press freedom. But the data show that a minimum level of economic freedom is a necessary precondition to ensuring a minimum level of press freedom: For 2015, the last year for which data is available, no country with a free press is in the bottom quartile of economic freedom.

In countries with a high degree of economic freedom, fewer journalists are attacked, fewer laws and regulations are imposed on the media, and there is less political pressure to control content. Economic freedom is simply good for journalists.

Messrs. Brookes and Déry are public-policy analysts at the Montreal Economic Institute.

Appeared in the May 2, 2018, print edition.



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