Michel Kelly-Gagnon: Economic freedom and press freedom tend to go together

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

I was therefore very pleased to participate in a well-attended symposium on the general theme of “Freedom of the Press in the Balkans and Turkey” which took place in Cape Sounio, Greece from May 26-28, 2017. The Greek Liberties Monitor, in collaboration with the European Public Law Organization and the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom, organized a truly enjoyable, intellectually stimulating event.

As a panelist, I spoke about the underappreciated link between press freedom and economic freedom. Indeed, comparing the hard, empirical data from Freedom House’s latest Freedom of the Press report with the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World report, there is definitely a clear correlation.

For instance, 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.

There are exceptions to the general rule, of course, like Hong Kong, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Jordan, and Bahrain, which all rank high on the index of economic freedom, but low or very low on the press freedom index. But the opposite is non-existent: There are zero countries among the bottom 30 in terms of economic freedom that are also among the top 30 for press freedom. This suggests that economic freedom is a necessary, though not a sufficient, condition for press freedom.

One thing I noticed among some of the other panelists at the conference was a tendency to conflate press freedom (i.e., the absence of political or legal obstacles keeping journalists and editors from doing their jobs) with the material conditions conducive to the proper and stable functioning of the press. But while it is surely a matter of concern if changing economic circumstances make it difficult to keep a newspaper afloat or pay journalists adequately, it has nothing to do, strictly speaking, with freedom of the press. And in fact, a push for governments to subsidize journalists and newspapers can actually undermine press freedom.

Good journalism is a vocation that requires intelligence, persistence, and hard work, and it is often a difficult and dangerous task. The courageous men and women around the world who strive to keep the press free deserve our deepest thanks and respect. One way to support the important work they do is to promote greater economic freedom.

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