Sabine C. Carey, Belén González, Neil J. Mitchell
Media freedom and the escalation of state violence

Political Studies, 2023: 71, issue 2, pp. 440–462
ISSN: 0032-3217 (print), 1467-9248 (online)

When governments face severe political violence, they regularly respond with violence. Yet not all governments escalate repression under such circumstances. We argue that to understand the escalation of state violence, we need to pay attention to the potential costs leaders might face in doing so. We expect that the decision to escalate state violence is conditional on being faced with heightened threats and on possessing an information advantage that mitigates the expected cost of increasing state violence. In an environment where media freedom is constrained, leaders can deny or reframe an escalation of violations and so expect to reduce potential domestic and international costs attached to that decision. Using a global dataset from 1981 to 2006, we show that state violence is likely to escalate in response to increasing violent threats to the state when media freedom is curtailed – but not when the media are free from state intervention. A media environment that the government knows is free to sound the alarm is associated with higher political costs of repression and effectively reduces the risk of escalating state violence, even in the face of mounting armed threats.