Press Freedom and (Not) Attending the Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony

Update: See here for an updated analysis.

A few days ago Dan Drezner issued a challenge: what explains why countries decide to attend or not attend the Nobel peace prize ceremony in honor of Li Xiaobo? Well, I just taught my last class so below is my quick attempt. A first simple hypothesis is that this is all about geopolitics. Governments that tend to side with China on other geopolitical issues may also choose to do so on this one. A second thesis is that this is all about domestic politics. Governments from countries that respect freedom of speech domestically may be more inclined to reject Chinese pressure either because they wish to signal support to these values or because they would face harsh criticism from their publics if they would cave to Chinese pressure.

The figure below captures these two factors. On the horizontal axis, we have press freedom as measured by Freedom House (a low score indicates more press freedom, data is from 2008 as this is what I had available). The vertical axis represents the extent to which countries voted with China in the UN General Assembly during the 64th session (2009/2010). A score of 1 means full agreement, a score of .5 implies that a country agreed with China half the time. Countries that are reputed not attend are represented by red crosses. I found various sources reporting a total of 21 countries that had indicated their intention to remain absent. The countries that are expected to attend are those from the remaining embassies in Norway.


It should be immediately obvious that press freedom and UN voting behavior are correlated. Yet, it appears that press freedom is the stronger correlate of the decision to attend. Among the governments that almost always vote with China in the UN General Assembly, those that have strong press freedom domestically are much more likely to attend. The Ukraine is the only country among the bloc of states that less frequently vote with China that will not attend. It is also the country with the worst press freedom. In a regression with both variables, UN voting becomes an insignificant covariate of the decision to attend. Press freedom alone explains 91% of attendance choices.

This suggests, then, that those governments that can expect the most pushback from their domestic press corps are most likely to attend the ceremony. I thus expect that Argentina, Serbia, and the Philipines will come under the most scrutiny for their decisions not to attend. It may still be worth it for them, as China is known to retaliate against countries that hand them symbolic defeats, such as allowing the Dalai Lama to visit.

One may protest that I have not controlled for many other possible covariates, especially investment and trade relationships. Indeed I haven’t. But the data (in Excel format) is here so you can try for yourself and report back if you find something interesting.

3 Responses to Press Freedom and (Not) Attending the Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony

  1. LFC December 9, 2010 at 10:32 pm #

    I was curious about the Freedom House index so I just took a quick look, following your link, at its 2010 map of press freedom (based on ’09 assessments). I chose an example to look at: Pakistan is listed as “not free” on the basis of numerical scores in various categories (legal environment, this and that), but if you start to read the actual description of press conditions in Pakistan, you see lines like: the gov’t imposed ordinances on the press prohibiting ‘defaming’ of public officials but the ordinances were “routinely ignored,” internet access only 11 percent but blogs becoming “increasingly popular” etc. But FH sums up this somewhat complicated picture with the 2 words “not free”. Arguably a bit misleading, imo. FWIW.

  2. Jacob AG December 10, 2010 at 1:18 pm #

    Where did you find data on countries’ UN voting agreement with China? That’s pretty cool.

  3. gene December 14, 2010 at 1:30 am #

    I’m afraid that the decision of the Philippine gov’t not to send any representative to the Nobel ceremony is due to its already strained relationship with Beijing and HK. Last August a horrible hostage-taking incident occurred here where several HK tourists were killed and injured. Months later, after much hype and investigations, several key Philippine gov’t officials have not been made accountable, damaging ties with China’s gov’t. Thus, in an effort not to exacerbate the situation, the gov’t has casually skipped attending the Nobel ceremony, explaining that it was due to scheduling problems/fearing for the lives of Filipinos on China’s death row. To be sure, the gov’t is facing mounting criticism from all fronts about this serious diplomatic faux pas, especially since the Philippines has long been known as a bastion of democracy in Asia and the world. A wiser, bolder administration would have insisted attendance, I’m guessing.