The media hold democratically elected leaders accountable by exposing corruption and policy failures. Although many politicians accept media criticism as intrinsic to liberal democracy, some politicians rein in freedom of the press or intimidate media outlets to silence their critics. We identify circumstances that motivate and enable presidents to curb media freedom in presidential democracies. We argue that (a) presidents who hold ideological positions contrary to those of the mainstream media adopt the media as viable opponents in the absence of an effective electoral opposition, and (b) the media are vulnerable to presidential infringements on their freedom where legislatures and judiciaries hold weak powers relative to presidents, and are therefore unable to constrain presidents’ actions against media freedom. We support our argument with quantitative analyses of press freedom ratings in presidential and semi-presidential democracies from 1993 to 2013.
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