For A Freer Press, Add Economic Freedom

A free press is one of the bulwarks of a modern, democratic society. Thomas Jefferson himself famously preferred newspapers without a government to government without newspapers.

Yet there is an underappreciated link between freedom of the press, on the one hand, and economic freedom, on the other. On the occasion of World Press Freedom Day, May 3, it's worth spending a few moments thinking about that link.

It's not surprising that the two would be connected, given the similarities between them. For instance, economic freedom implies that people can decide how to use their aptitudes to carry out whatever kind of work they like, as long as they can find customers and/or an employer willing to buy the product or service they're selling. Press freedom implies that journalists can decide what to report on, as long as their editors, and ultimately their readers, are willing to buy what they're selling.

Economic freedom requires that governments exercise restraint, neither interfering with individual choices nor restricting voluntary trade or entrepreneurial freedom. Nor should governments compete with existing businesses already providing certain goods and services. It's easy to see how this applies to press freedom, since interfering with journalists' choices and the existence of government-run media have often been among the greatest threats to press freedom.

In fact, the questions to ask of a country's journalists, to figure out how free they actually are, should be centred on ownership and control: Are journalists the "owners" of their own reporting and opinions, and are they free to refuse the terms of those publishing their work, and look to publish it elsewhere? Is the media structured around contract and voluntary exchange, or around government decrees and the threat of jail?

Is there hard, empirical data to support a link between these two freedoms? Surprisingly, there have been no econometric studies of the matter, but the data we do have seems to support a connection, with certain nuances.

For example, when we look at Freedom House's latest Freedom of the Press report, and we compare their results with the Fraser Institute's Economic Freedom of the World report, there is definitely a clear correlation.

One way of illustrating this is to note that 11 of the top 20 most economically free countries are among the top 40 for press freedom. And the connection is even stronger in the other direction: 17 out of the top 20 countries in terms of press freedom are among the top 40 countries for economic freedom.

This doesn't mean that economic freedom is the only determinant of press freedom, and indeed, there are exceptions to the general rule. Canada is a bit of an exception, as it ranks only 21st in terms of press freedom, whereas we rank fifth in terms of economic freedom. We may well drop further in future press freedom reports, too, since it was recently revealed that police in Quebec have been tapping the phones of journalists in a way that is clearly too broad.

But there are other, more extreme examples of exceptions to the general correlation between economic and press freedom, such as Hong Kong, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Jordan, and Bahrain. These five countries rank high on the index of economic freedom, but low or very low on the press freedom index.

What is clear, though, is that without economic freedom, it's impossible to have a free press. While these outlier countries have high economic freedom but low press freedom, the opposite is non-existent: To be specific, there are zero countries among the bottom 30 in terms of economic freedom that are also among the top 30 for press freedom. It simply doesn't happen.

Good journalism is a vocation that requires intelligence, persistence, and hard work, and it is often a difficult and dangerous task. To support the work of the courageous men and women around the world who strive to keep the press free, we must promote economic freedom.

Michel Kelly-Gagnon is President and CEO of the Montreal Economic Institute. The views reflected in this op-ed are his own.

Back to top