Strategic Censorship

Posted: 8 Jul 2012

Date Written: July 6, 2012


While it is often assumed that authoritarian regimes only fear and restrict media freedom, permitting watchdog journalism can actually help such regimes maintain power by improving governance. Yet such a strategy risks facilitating a coordinated uprising if discontent is revealed to be widespread. This paper offers a formal model shedding light on this tradeoff, showing that a regime's optimal strategy will often be to permit some investigative reporting on lower-level officialdom, but to adjust how much reporting is allowed depending on the level of underlying social tensions. This strategy yields many of the benefits of free media without risking overthrow. An extension shows that an increase in uncontrollable information, such as from the internet, may result in a reduction in media freedom. The model sheds light on important aspects of China's media policy and its evolution and on authoritarian media control more broadly.

Keywords: media freedom, censorship, authoritarianism, game theory, China

JEL Classification: D72, P26

Suggested Citation

Lorentzen, Peter L., Strategic Censorship (July 6, 2012). Available at SSRN: or

Peter L. Lorentzen (Contact Author)

University of San Francisco ( email )

2130 Fulton Street
San Francisco, CA 94117-1080
United States


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