Op-ed published exclusively on our website.
The latest reports on freedom of the press are worrisome. This freedom has declined over the past decade, and 54 journalists were killed on the job in 2018 alone. Several factors explain the level of press freedom of a given country: the nature of the political system, its level of development, or the presence of armed conflicts on its territory, for example. Another important factor, too often ignored, is its degree of economic freedom. As we celebrate World Press Freedom Day, there’s no better time to examine the level of freedom around the world.
Buying and Selling Ideas
Economic freedom implies that people can choose among goods and services and engage in voluntary exchange. The free market, by guaranteeing the separation of economic and political powers, notably ensures freedom of expression. In sum, it allows for competition between various buyers and sellers of information and ideas.
Several aspects of economic freedom tend to provide journalists with conditions that allow them to express themselves freely. There is, for example, the freedom to start your own business, and thus to compete with other media sources. The government or certain well-connected interest groups are thus kept from taking control of the press. Openness to international trade also tends to limit the control of a limited group on public opinion in a country.
The comparison between the data from two annual rankings, namely the Economic Freedom of the World and Freedom of the Press indices, shows that greater economic freedom generally goes hand in hand with a higher level of press freedom.
For example, in 2016 (the latest available data), the countries with the most economic freedom had an average press freedom score nearly twice as high as the least economically free countries (68 vs. 37, according to the Freedom of the Press index). In other words, the more that countries adopt public policies leaving the market free to operate, the more the press is likely to be independent.
What the Best Have in Common
In which countries do we find the most press freedom? Among the top 20, most are European countries: Norway, the Netherlands, and Sweden make the podium, while Canada is in 13th place (among the 162 countries for which data were available for both indices). The common feature of all of these countries, with a single exception, is that they guarantee a high degree of economic freedom. If we look at the bigger picture, 86% of the countries with a press considered “free” in the Freedom of the Press report are in the first or second quartile in terms of economic freedom, as measured by the Economic Freedom of the World report.
Conversely, of the 20 countries where the press is the least free, 17 are either in the 3rd or in the last quartile for economic freedom. In general, the vast majority of countries with a low level of press freedom also allow less economic freedom.
Of course, economic freedom does not constitute by itself a sufficient condition for ensuring press freedom. Certain economically free countries lack a free press, like Singapore or Bahrain, for instance. Overall, the fact remains that greater economic freedom is generally associated with greater press freedom.
Some countries in South America like Bolivia, Venezuela, or Argentina, which have adopted interventionist economic policies, have endangered the independence of the press in those countries, sometimes even knowingly and through direct interventions. At the same time, certain African countries that have liberalized their economies have seen, little by little, an increase in press freedom.
Finally, besides their effect on press freedom, public policies that favour economic freedom also have a positive impact on growth, human well-being, and the condition of women.
A Necessary Condition
Economic freedom is a necessary condition for a market of ideas to prosper in which everyone has freedom of expression, itself a prerequisite for the exercise of numerous other rights and freedoms.
International institutions and non-governmental organizations that deploy immense efforts and resources in this regard should take note of this. So, too, should industrialized countries, whose populations have benefited enormously from the liberalization of markets, yet where its benefits, widely demonstrated, are often called into question.
Kevin Brookes and Patrick Déry are respectively Associate Researcher at the MEI and Senior Public Policy Analyst at the MEI. They are the authors of “For a Freer Press, Add Economic Freedom” and the views reflected in this op-ed are their own.