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Free Media, Political Accountability and Economic Development

Free Media, Political Accountability and Economic Development

The term Fourth State has traditionally been used in reference to the media, in reference to its explicit capacity of advocacy to frame political issues and contribute to political accountability. Precisely due to the importance of the media, governments have throughout history have sought to control and influence the information provided to citizens by the fourth power. 

An existing academic consensus establishes that in those countries where the government owns a larger share of media outlets and infrastructure, regulates the media heavily or controls the content of the news, citizens are more politically ignorant and there’s less political accountability. From this follows that generally, where media is less regulated and the majority of the industry is privately owned, citizens are more politically involved and knowledgeable, leading to greater levels of governmental accountability. Those places where the government interferes with the media, tend to have more biased information which leads citizens to be politically ignorant and to reduce their participation in politics. This reduces political accountability, and, consequently, when politicians are free from accountability to the electorate, they are more likely to pursue private profit and rent extraction.

The media is essential for holding politicians accountable, but governments have mechanisms at their disposal to try and capture the media, in order to reduce their accountability from citizens. So, media capture by the government can provide media outlets with greater profits than a no-collusion situation. To prevent this, there are several factors that are relevant regarding the structure of the media industry in a country. Firstly, the media industry should be plural, as plurality provides effective protection against capture even in the absence of any horizontal differentiation between media outlets. A larger number of independent media outlets will make it more expensive for the government to take over and monopolize the media industry. The higher transaction costs for media capture are, the higher the independence level will be. Independent media ownership will reduce government capture. 

A sizeable literature confirms that those places where citizens are less politically knowledgeable are also those where they are less participative in politics. The relationships between media freedom and political participation is almost direct, as those places where there’s less media freedom are also those where citizens are less knowledgeable about political issues. Less regulated media is clearly positive for all measures of political participation and political accountability. A freer media leads to greater political knowledge and participation which in turn causes politicians in power to be more accountable to their electorate and reduce political rent-seeking. 

However, a free media is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for economic and social development. While a free media seems to be a relevant factor for political and socioeconomic development, it is not a unique cause for it. Some other factors as political stability, a stable economic environment, the quality of education… seem more relevant for economic development. Certain institutions contribute to facilitating the role of the media in terms of promoting political accountability and maintaining citizens informed. However, the relation also goes the other way around, as an independent media contributes to strengthen existing institutions and incentivizes further development.

Successful socioeconomic development is characterized by widespread coordination, being the development of a free media critical for shifting games of conflict to games of coordination. We have seen the importance of all media outlets being private in order to be effective, as government involvement could compromise the credibility of the media and provide potential for political capture. Also, countries should be very receptive to foreign investment in the media sector, as developing media firms would benefit from outside advice. This will also provide another source of information for citizens and a check mechanism on domestic media sources, for which consumer demand is also critical. If the media is free, independent and plural, it will serve as a coordination mechanism to achieve greater political accountability and economic development. 

Alvaro Martin

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