Stock Analysis, IPO, Mutual Funds, Bonds & More

Having a free press is a necessary condition for responsive government and reduced corruption

Research has unequivocally shown that increased press freedom has real benefits which are disproportionately higher for vulnerable sections of society.

Last Updated: Jun 25, 2014, 12.40 PM IST
Research has unequivocally shown that increased press freedom has real benefits which are disproportionately higher for vulnerable sections of society.
Research has unequivocally shown that increased press freedom has real benefits which are disproportionately higher for vulnerable sections of society.
Tax Calculator
By: Prasanna Tantri

Last month's general election brought the role of media under the spotlight. Media faced severe criticism from political parties, intellectuals and industry insiders for allegedly being partisan during elections. A large section of mainstream media has been castigated as "paid media" by social media enthusiasts.

In this context, however, a great deal of work already exists in the political economy literature analyzing the real effects of having a free media on democratic practices and government responsiveness. Research has shown that free and vibrant media is associated with lower corruption and a better response from governments to fall in food production and natural calamities.

Rudiger Ahrend of the London School of Economics investigates connections between corruption, human capital and press freedom in 130 countries. He convincingly shows that lower level of press freedom is associated with higher level of corruption throughout the world.

The interesting part of the finding is that mere increase in education levels does not lead to reduction in corruption. Corruption falls only in cases where higher levels of education among the electorate are accompanied by increase in freedom of press. In fact, a standalone increase in education sometimes leads to increased corruption as the educated elite collude with nefarious elements in society.

Pranab Bardhan and Dilip Mukherji also highlight such a possibility. They develop a model of political capture where corrupt politicians collude with elites with a view to perpetuate policies which are beneficial only to the privileged few. High political awareness among ordinary citizens works as an effective antidote to such political capture. Needless to say, an independent media is a sine qua non to create awareness.

These conclusions are not based on mere existence of negative correlations between freedom of press and corruption. Careful academic studies control for the influence of other factors that can influence both variables under study. For example, it is possible that some countries are less corrupt because of cultural reasons. It is possible that such countries also have a free press. Thus the driving force behind lesser corruption may be the dominant culture.

To control for such influences researchers use country fixed effects, which take care of all time invariant factors that are common to a country. It is possible that corruption reduced only during a year or so due to some event, such as the Anna Hazare movement. Such influences are taken care of by using time invariant effects. Researchers also control for the impact of time varying factors such as economic growth, openness to trade, etc. After controlling for the influence of all these factors, they robustly estimate that increased press freedom is associated with lower levels of corruption.


Another real benefit of free media is increased government responsiveness during economic stress, especially agrarian strain caused by inclement weather. Timothy Bessly and Robin Burgess examine the relationship between higher newspaper circulation and responsiveness of governments in 16 major Indian states over a period of 34 years. They measure government responsiveness by examining the expenditure on public distribution of food during the periods with low agricultural production and on calamity relief during times of drought and flood.

They find that a 1 per cent increase in newspaper circulation is associated with a 2.4 per cent increase in food distribution and a 5.5 per cent increase in calamity relief expenditure. The expenditure on public distribution of food is seven times higher in states with high newspaper circulation when compared to states with low newspaper circulation.

One may argue that higher expenditure need not imply effective response to natural calamities as government programmes are notorious for leakages. Here it is important to note that since free media leads to lower corruption, leakages in welfare programmes are likely to be minimal in regions that have strong independent media presence. As in the case of the study pertaining to corruption, this study also controls for both time variant and time invariant factors. Thus it is clear from the above study that higher newspaper circulation induces governments to be more responsive towards vulnerable sections.

We have examined if the electorate rewards governments which achieve high economic growth during their tenure. We find that such a phenomenon exists only in areas with a high literacy rate. It is important to note that such areas also have high level of newspaper circulation. It has been shown that even slum dwellers, when well informed, exercise their franchise wisely and choose better candidates. In these experiments newspapers played a key role in spreading awareness about incumbent performance.

A significant section of the Indian middle class believes that India is lagging behind China mainly because we are a democracy and have too much freedom. Such arguments ignore the fact that almost all developed countries on earth are vibrant democracies and have reasonably free media. On the other hand, most backward countries are characterized by restrictions on freedom of expression.

Research has unequivocally shown that increased press freedom has real benefits which are disproportionately higher for vulnerable sections of society. Freedom of the press is important not just for intellectuals who wish to express their opinion, it's more so for ordinary citizens.

The writer works for Centre For Analytical Finance, Indian School of Business.

Add Your Comments
Commenting feature is disabled in your country/region.

Other useful Links

Copyright © 2020 Bennett, Coleman & Co. Ltd. All rights reserved. For reprint rights: Times Syndication Service