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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Is Sunshine the Best Disinfectant? The Causal Relationship between Media Freedom and Democratization


This article seeks to contribute to the literature on democratization by examining the media’s causal relationship to political liberalization. First, I briefly review the major theoretical research regarding democratization and the media. I then provide an account of why media freedom contributes to democratic development. Specifically, I highlight two causal mechanisms, The Civil Society Function and The Opposition Function. The Civil Society Function, most often carried out in the print media, describes the media’s role in facilitating a public sphere in which elites can communicate. In contrast, in accordance with The Opposition Function, the media furthers political liberalization by increasing the public’s awareness of alternative political candidates. Because of its vast distribution, the broadcast media best performs The Opposition Function. The case of Mexico is examined to provide a concrete illustration of each of these functions of the media in relation to democratization. In the third section, I show the explanatory ability of the media on democratization, tested empirically against competing conventional explanations of democratization. To do so, I use the ordinary least squares method on time-series cross-sectional data of 200 countries measured annually from 1980-2004. The data and methods are described, as are the empirical findings and their theoretical implications.

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