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What access to the internet says about global development

May 4, 2016

On Tuesday, May 3 we celebrated World Press Freedom Day. Or, at least, some countries did.


The annual holiday is a reminder to consider the status of the media and the security of journalists across the country, and this year the holiday offered a chance to reflect on the terrifying conditions many journalists face across the globe.


Yesterday, Freedom House released their 2016 Freedom of the Press Report, which details changes in the international press freedom landscape over the course of the previous year. Among many interesting findings, the report included an interesting graph (right) comparing press freedom, internet penetration and GDP (Gross Domestic Product per capita).


While those of us in the digital media sphere may consider the internet to be an assumed asset, many journalists around the country are working within the confines of the pre-internet reporting world—often times paired with persecution from government officials.


Countries with the highest GDP also have the highest level of press freedom, and the most access to the internet. Looking at the trends on this graph raise some questions.


Is access to the internet directly related to economic growth? Does an empowered press lead to further economic development? A combination of both, or neither?


Just as a free press is responsible for keeping government accountable, it is by extension responsible for keeping an eye on business. The fiscal and political spheres of a national government are inherently intertwined, and a strengthened press can keep tabs on abuses of power in all areas.


As far as the relationship to the internet goes, my theory is this: Access to the uncensored internet will give citizens more access to information, which keeps them more engaged with issues in their home country and gives them the ability to compare their situation to other situations across the globe. What would North Koreans think, for example, if they read about the Arab Spring?


This empowers citizens to lobby their own government and business for accountability, and maybe even to participate in citizen journalism themselves. An empowered citizenry might encourage more cohesive government structures, further participation in global trade and the improvement of infrastructure, all which contribute to GDP.

Furthermore, the expansion of technologies (abetted by the internet), could continue to strengthen GDP by encouraging industry and putting more money into the hands of workers. Digital media is one of those technologies—providing a consumer good as well as a tool for a variety of professions, including journalism.


The report also tells of “developed” countries that had major challenges to their press freedoms this year, notably France. The French government enacted legislation following the Charlie Hebdo attack that “empowers authorities to conduct mass surveillance with little oversight,” and a general growth in self-censorship related to security concerns.


With rampant fear about Islamic extremist attacks on the west, many other European and North American nations may follow with restrictions. The United States is dealing with that struggle constantly; the government’s dispute with Apple is just one recent example.


If an empowered press helps GDP, could further restrictions on the press contribute to recession?

Infographic above: Press Freedom vs. Internet Penetration vs. GDP per capita, taken by screen shot from the 2016 Freedom of the Press Report via Freedom House. 


Infographic left: Global access to the internet, taken by screen shot from the 2015 Freedom on the Net Report via Freedom House.

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