Media Freedom and the Escalation of State Violence

Research output: Journal contributionsJournal articlesResearchpeer-review


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.

Original languageEnglish
JournalPolitical Studies
Issue number2
Pages (from-to)440-462
Number of pages23
Publication statusPublished - 05.2023

Bibliographical note

The authors thank the editor and the reviewers for their helpful comments. Earlier versions of this project were presented at the ISA Convention 2016, at the 2016 workshop ‘Violent and Nonviolent Tactics in Conflict’ at Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), at the University of Heidelberg and at the ETH and University of Zurich. They are particularly grateful to Stefanie Bailer, Charles Butcher, Lars-Eric Cederman, Scott Gates, Kristian Gleditsch, Adam Scharpf and Hannah Smidt for their valuable feedback. The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship and/or publication of this article: This project received funding from the European Research Council under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013)/ERC Grant Agreement no 336019.

Publisher Copyright:
© The Author(s) 2021.

    Research areas

  • dissent, human rights, media freedom, repression, violent conflict
  • Politics