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Governments Attack Media Freedom to Win Elections — and it Works

By BETH HARPAZ

A new study looks at how restrictions on press freedom in Venezuela are strategically implemented by the government to weaken opposition in elections. The research by Kyong Mazzaro, a Ph.D. candidate in political science (The Graduate Center), was published in Electoral Studies.

Mazzaro says case studies around the world have shown that hybrid regimes like Venezuela’s (which have features of both democracies and autocracies) “often limit the dissemination of information as a way to hurt the opposition, win elections, and stay in power.”

But “less is known about the electoral incentives that explain the timing and location of restrictions.” Using reports from local media freedom monitoring organizations, Mazzaro compiled microdata from Venezuela from 2002 to 2015 to illustrate “patterns of government-led restrictions on media freedom.” The data included “the timing and location of over 1,600 events where either the national government, local incumbents aligned with the government, or pro-government party supporters attempted to or succeeded at limiting information collection, reporting, analysis or dissemination through the press or broadcasting.”

Her findings show that “when governments restrict media freedom, they do so strategically. … to hurt the opposition where it is most mobilized.”

Mazzaro’s research was the first systematic study to examine press restrictions amid the interplay of local and national politics, and the first to prove that the more “electoral competition” there is–meaning, the more viable the opposition is in threatening the reelection of government party incumbents–the more likely it is that media restrictions will be imposed.

At the local level, she found restrictions were most often implemented in three ways: to “demobilize opponents where they are strongest”; to win “marginal votes” in local elections where just a few votes in one direction or the other could determine the outcome; and to maintain incumbents’ “primacy in strongholds.”

“While local electoral incentives do not play a role in shaping patterns of restrictions on media freedom when the government is unchallenged, they become relevant as the opposition contests the incumbent’s primacy,” she wrote. “Specifically, when the national government’s party is no longer in the lead, incumbents are most inclined to target the opposition where it is most mobilized and place restrictions in highly competitive districts during local campaigns.”