How does press freedom foster transparency worldwide?

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“I’m proud to introduce a new series of research projects from the Sunlight Foundation spring semester interns. This post is by Alyssa Noronha, she delves into whether a free press affects e-democracy and transparency in countries around the world.” – Nisha Thompson

By Sunlight Foundation Intern, Alyssa Noronha

After interning at Sunlight for a semester, I realized that the freedom of the press and information can influence government actions. I believe that the freedom of the press is the foundation for transparency, and increasing access to government tools via the internet also influences transparency. I did not fully understand the relationship between press freedom, e-government, and transparency, and after being an intern at Sunlight, I was itching to investigate more.

This study searches for the link between press freedom and e-government initiatives. I wanted to see if freedom of press affects e-government measures, specifically transparency initiatives. I discovered that increased press freedom may help foster a growth in e-government, and growth of these two measures greatly impacts transparency. I ran a regression, using data from Reporters Without Borders, the Brookings Institute, and the CIA World Factbook; I found that there is a statistically significant relationship between press freedom and e-government, holding the size of the economy (GDP) constant. As press freedom increases by ten points on a 100-point scale, e-government measures increase by approximately one point (.8) on a 100-point scale, holding GDP constant. While there may be other intervening factors, the simple relationship stands. Advocates for e-government, or electronic government, seek to expand citizen access to government services through the Internet and electronic communications. These online government tools allow public access and can speed up government functions. Citizens, through e-government initiatives, can access information that was formerly buried in written government ledgers. E-government measures permit citizens to engage with government remotely, which widens the net of citizens who can interact with the government. Government functioning therefore becomes more transparent due to increased citizen access. Consider the eRepresentative project in Europe. This e-government initiative provided an open-source virtual desktop for European lawmakers to access legislative tools, such as drafting and sharing proposed legislation. This measure then links a lawmaker to their proposed legislation, which can permit citizens to keep track of what their representative is doing. Any increase in e-government is a positive for transparency because it allows broader access to information and services via the Internet.

Press freedom is another important measure for transparency, because when the press has access to information, citizens can also access the information. Giving the press more freedom can help transparency and increase the use of technology. If governments control the press, citizens suffer from a one-sided picture of their government. It makes sense for freedom of press to determine how transparent a government is. A free press supports accountability by writing about corruption in government and demanding more information in more accessible forms. By putting data and information in the hands of citizens, who can then analyze and interpret the data themselves, you can break down a lot of barriers to participation. Increased press freedom demands more transparency, and aims to create a more responsive, accountable government. The government, in order to be more accountable, creates solutions to the issues publicized by the press. These solutions often take the form of e-government. While one of the most commonly cited problems with increasing e-government is a lack of monetary and structural resources, allowing more freedom in the press may help a country with pushing more e-government initiatives.

The map below illustrates the three variables in three separate world maps.

Another helpful visualization tool comes from Many Eyes , a project of IBM. On Many Eyes, I created an interactive scatterplot to show the relationship between press freedom, e-government and GDP.

To read more about the method used, see below. The dataset is hosted on Many Eyes.

Press freedom and e-government are two important measures of transparency because they foster a stronger relationship between citizens and government. Having a more interactive government, in my opinion, is an important goal for any democracy because it demands that the government answer to its opposition. Through my study, I hope to have instilled the importance of press freedom for transparency worldwide.

Method

Data: Press Freedom Index data from Reporters Without Borders 2008 index, on a scale of 0-100. The site ranks higher press freedom with lower numbers, (ie 1.5 is the highest press freedom), so I converted the numbers by adding -100 to each score, then taking the absolute value of each score, to get the new score out of 100 (ie 1.5 now becomes 98.5).

E-GOV 2008 data comes from the Brookings Institute annual ranking of e-government on a scale of 0-100. The best e-government ranking country for 2008 was South Korea, with a high score of 64.7.

GDP data comes from CIA.gov’s World Factbook. To get the numbers in a more manageable size, each GDP value was divided by 1,000,000.

The variables used in the regression were: Dependent: EGOV2008 Independent: PRESSFREE2008C, GDPINMILUSD, and a constant

Findings: After running the regression on the open-source statistical software gretl, I found that as press freedom rating increases by 10, e-government rating increases by approximately 1 (.8), holding the size of the economy (GDP) constant. (This comes from the co-efficient in the regression for var. PRESSFREE2008C = .0827246.) The low p-values in this regression indicate that these findings are statistically significant.

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  • Alyssa

    Hey everyone – thanks for all the comments and criticism, I really appreciate the time and thoughts. I’d like to address the concerns.

    For the sake of argument, I ran the regression again, taking out data for South Korea, Taiwan, the US, Canada, and Australia. There is still a statistically significant relationship (very low p-value), and the co-efficient has only dropped a little bit. By simply looking at the scatterplot, it is difficult to notice this correlation.

    One of the most commonly cited problems with any political science study is that causation is very hard to prove. I think there is a strong case for why correlation could be causation in this study. If I had more time, I would have collected more variables to hopefully find a more robust result.

  • Ben
  • Jonathan

    Of course – her process is exactly the same as experts use — that’s why our author is getting the full on grown up criticism. I challenge the experts too. :)

    My point wasn’t that those five should be removed: rather the opposite. My point was that any explanation of the correlation found should focus on those five, as they’re really the only ones that evidence a strong correlation. Just look at the scatter plot — it’s not a diagonal clump! It’s horizontal, with five outliers. Horizontal scatter = not correlated.

    So what’s going on in those five? That’s where the signal is – the rest is probably noise.

  • Anthony

    In response to Jonathan’s comment, it seems the analysis is solid. She had a hypothesis about e-government and press freedom. She found a correlation in the data and gave a plausible explanation as to why the correlation might be causation. This procedure is exactly the same as used by experts.

    More than that, I don’t think removing 5 data points would change the results given that there are more than 150 observations. Plus, in order to remove observations from a study, there should be a good reason (if you are studying trade as a share of GDP, removing a country like Singapore would be acceptable). However the countries you are pointing to are South Korea, Taiwan, the US, Canada, and Australia. These countries do not strike me as exceptional.

    She also addresses criticism by stating “there may be other intervening factors” in the relationship of e-government and press freedom.

  • Jonathan

    Great visuals! But the analysis… hmm…. I’m going to file this one under “Correlation: it’s ALWAYS causation”. :)

    Look at your scatterplot. Take away five outliers on the high press/high egov end of the spread, and it scarcely correlates at all, much less proves causation.

    So what’s going on in those five datapoints? Why are they better? Because that’s your entire finding: those five countries. Why is their egov score so much better? There’s a story here, but it’s bigger than a pair of numbers per massively complex political/historical/economic unit.

    I’ve found these two documents helpful:

    http://www.oecd.org/document/25/0,2340,en_2649_33935_37081881_1_1_1_1,00.html

    http://www.undp.org/oslocentre/flagship/users_guide_measuring_corruption.html

    On the whole, interesting work, and I look forward to reading more. Again, great visuals. Best regards.