The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Restrictions on the news media are a bellwether for two disturbing trends

In the wake of a growing conflict between President Trump and the news media, many have expressed concern about what this spells for the future of democracy in America. Although the president has not proposed formal legislation restricting the media, he has, for example, called media organizations “the enemy of the American people” and has excluded prominent organizations from news briefings. The Washington Post’s new motto, “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” reflects this concern.

Although Trump’s conflict with the media has alarmed many in the United States, such a confrontation is not unusual when we look outside our borders. There have been many such conflicts in other countries. Our study of dozens of these cases leads to a disturbing conclusion: Media restrictions abroad are a bellwether for declines in democracy and for periods of increased human rights abuses.

We first identified as many historical examples as we could. Using data compiled by Jenifer Whitten-Woodring and Douglas A. Van Belle, we found 122 cases of increased restrictions on the media between 1951 and 2014.

We found that those restrictions were associated with a greater risk that democracy would suffer in two respects. First, media restrictions were often accompanied by less competition among political parties and factions. Second, restrictions were often accompanied by a weakening of institutions that can effectively limit the power of the executive.

Specifically, competition decreased 14 percent of the time when media restrictions increased, compared with 2 percent of the time when media restrictions did not change and less than 1 percent of the time when restrictions decreased. The same goes for constraints on the executive. When media restrictions go into effect, the president becomes more powerful, or difficult to control, in 11 percent of cases. This happens in only 2 percent of cases where restrictions remain stable and never happens in our sample when restrictions decrease.

The good news is that these troubling developments are not common. In these 122 cases in which media freedom declined, only 17 witnessed decreases in political competition, and 14 witnessed decreases in executive constraints. Declines in democracy are relatively rare even when media restrictions increase. But these declines are nonetheless more likely when media restrictions increase than otherwise.

Media restrictions also appear to degrade human rights. Here, we drew on data from the CIRI Human Rights Data Project, which captures how much a country’s government engages in tactics such as political imprisonment, torture, extralegal executions and kidnappings. These data are available beginning in 1981, and since then there were 79 cases where media restrictions increased.

In 34 of these 79 cases, increased restrictions coincided with increases in torture, police killings and other forms of state violence — a much higher rate than occurred when media restrictions were not enacted. Moreover, the link between media restrictions and decreases in human rights and democracy holds across countries with different levels of wealth and population sizes.

According to the metric used here, the United States is considered a country with a “free” media. Certainly that is true compared with historical examples like Chile — where, after Augusto Pinochet assumed power in 1973, his government cracked down on the free press and killed or “disappeared” dozens of journalists.  In conjunction with these policies, the military government also dissolved the national legislature, outlawed several political parties and engaged in widespread human rights abuses.

But even if the U.S. government is very unlikely to engage in such atrocities, Trump’s current and past behavior suggests that he would like to increase the social, economic and perhaps legal costs to the media for criticizing the government. Our analysis suggests that democratic institutions are more likely to weaken when the government restricts the media than when it does not. Democracy can often survive regardless, but there is still good reason to monitor the attacks on the institutions that sustain it.

Daniel W. Hill Jr. is an assistant professor of international affairs at the University of Georgia. Yonatan Lupu is an assistant professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.