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Media freedom is typically viewed as crucial to democracy and development. The idea is that independent news media will facilitate free and fair elections and shine a spotlight on corruption—thereby serving as a fourth estate. Yet political leaders often justify restricting media freedom on the grounds that irresponsible news coverage will incite political violence—potentially undermining government and in effect acting as a fifth column. So is media freedom a force for democracy or a source of civil conflict? We hypothesize that the effect of media freedom on civil conflict is conditioned by a country’s level of intolerance. Specifically, we predict when social intolerance is low, media freedom will discourage domestic conflict because the tone of the news coverage will reflect the level of tolerance and ameliorate any inflammatory coverage. In contrast, we predict that high levels of social intolerance will fuel and be fueled by inflammatory news coverage if the media are free, thereby promoting civil conflict. We test our hypotheses across countries and over time drawing from World Values and European Values Surveys and the Global Media Freedom Dataset and find that the combination of media freedom and high social intolerance is associated with increased civil conflict.