By Leopoldo Fergusson* and Juan Fernando Vargas**
Having a free and active media is recognized as essential for political accountability. By providing information, mass media can help voters make better decisions and hold politicians accountable.
Often, journalists also help uncover corruption scandals and undue influence of special interests groups. A famous example from US history is the Progressive Era, when many argue that an active, informative press reduced corruption and mobilized the population against the power and abuses of the robber barons.
It is precisely around this time that Louis Brandeis famously remarked, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” Earlier, Thomas Jefferson went so far as to say that free media is sufficient for political accountability: “Where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe.”
In a recent paper with Mauricio Vela (IADB), we argue that Jefferson’s statement is incomplete: free media is no guarantee of political accountability. In particular, unless free media operates in a sufficiently strong institutional environment, their provision of information about politicians may not increase political accountability and may even have unintended negative consequences.
To capture the essence of our argument, imagine a situation where two politicians compete in an election. One of the politicians, however, may coerce a fraction of voters to vote for him. A free and active press, in turn, may expose this politician, revealing his electoral malpractices.
What happens next? Presumably, with this information the politician will become less popular among free voters. But also, the corrupt politician may increase its coercion effort to counteract the impact of the media scandal.
Of course, increased coercion is already a negative unintended consequence of media exposure. But to make matters worse, if the response of coercion is sufficiently strong, the media scandal may not even reduce the votes for the exposed politician.
In our study, we show that this is not merely a theoretical possibility. It is exactly what happened in Colombia’s legislative elections from 2002 to 2010.
During the “parapolitica” (para-politics) scandal, the national media denounced politicians’ deals with illegal armed paramilitary groups to obtain votes by exerting violent coercion. Our research first documents that ‘parapoliticians’ have a different vote distribution than non-parapoliticians, consistent with what could be expected: Senate candidates involved in the scandal get significantly more votes in areas where there is more paramilitary presence, less presence of (judiciary) institutions, and the available institutions are inefficient.
Most importantly, we present an additional exercise that both tests directly the effects of the scandal and is harder to reconcile with potential alternative accounts.
Namely, these patterns of vote distribution are similar when comparing, among parapoliticians, candidates exposed by the media before their election with those exposed once they were elected.
Consistent with our argument, parapoliticians exposed by the press before the elections shift their distribution of votes to areas in which coercion is easier to exert (i.e., places with more paramilitary presence, less state presence, and more judicial inefficiency).
Moreover, parapoliticians are relatively more successful than their clean competitors in terms of their vote share. This may be unsurprising as these politicians can, after all, coerce some voters.
But even those involved in the scandal before they were elected were able to counteract the negative information, and their vote share does not differ significantly from that of candidates exposed in the media once elected.
It is clear that the power of mass media is a double-edged sword. Unbiased, free media of the kind Jefferson imagined helps achieve political accountability, but the opposite occurs when political capture, the profit motive, or other reasons bias its content.
But our findings go beyond this idea, and highlight the complementarity between the different dimensions of institutions in democracy: even if mass media provides valuable information to voters thus increasing transparency, it may not promote political accountability in a weakly-institutionalized environment where free elections are not guaranteed.
To complement Brandeis famous remark, sunlight may well be the best of disinfectants, but not when germs can hide in the shade.
In Colombia, the media exposure of parapoliticians sent them further into the shade.