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Opinion Trial-and-error is a painful but necessary process for a truly free press

Josh Friedman, a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist, was the chair of the Committee to Protect Journalists and director of International Programs at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He now chairs the Logan Nonfiction Program advisory board, sits on the advisory board of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma and serves as vice-chair at the Carey Institute for Global Good.

On a trip to Ethiopia in the 1990s, I met with Prime Minister Meles Zenawi to try to persuade him to stop jailing journalists. Since Mr. Zenawi’s guerillas had ousted a repressive Soviet-backed dictatorship a few years before, there had been an explosion of exuberant and sometimes wildly inaccurate little newspapers, many of them attacking him. So he had cracked down, introducing laws criminalizing what he called “insults” to the government and fining and imprisoning journalists for inaccuracies. Ethiopia quickly became one of the world’s top jailors of journalists.

Now, just one year into the term of new reformist Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia has made so much progress in freeing jailed journalists and lifting press controls that it is hosting World Press Freedom Day.

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But don’t celebrate yet. Some in the newly freed press are publishing sometimes inaccurate stories – whipping up ethnic and tribal enmity and attacking Mr. Ahmed. With the first free elections in 15 years taking place next year, he is in the same spot Mr. Zenawi was, and is considering restoring some of the press controls he had cancelled.

Before he does that, he should take a long and critical look at Mr. Zenawi’s crackdown and the lesson it holds: Journalists are irrepressible, and controlling them achieves nothing in the long run. In fact, it merely delays the development of a more professional media.

When I met with him, Mr. Zenawi offered a simple explanation for his government’s actions. “Our journalists are not professional like those in the United States and Western Europe,” he told me. “They do not know how to report the news accurately. We must set guidelines for them until they learn how to do their jobs.”

If he were alive today, he would probably be railing against “fake news.”

Over more than three decades of fighting for a worldwide free press, and as an early chairman of the Committee to Protect Journalists, I have heard arguments such as this many times. Journalists, officials in emerging democracies often insist, must be constrained by the state until they are able to carry out their work responsibly. But rather than accelerating the development of a credible free press, this approach impedes it.

History bears that out. In fact, Mr. Zenawi’s words were eerily similar to arguments made in the 18th century by then U.S. president John Adams and his Federalists, who denounced a free and enthusiastic press that disseminated criticism – both accurate and inaccurate – of the new country’s politicians.

Arguing that an unrestrained press threatened America’s future, Adams succeeded in stifling journalists temporarily in 1798, when he signed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which authorized imprisoning and fining journalists who “write, print, utter, or publish any false, scandalous and malicious writing” against the government. Twenty newspaper editors were subsequently jailed.

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But Thomas Jefferson and his Democratic-Republicans pushed back against the Federalists, both in Congress and the courts. When Jefferson was elected president in 1800, the alien and sedition laws either expired or were repealed. That opened the way for the American press to experiment, thereby developing – over more than two centuries – a culture of deep and accurate reporting, including consistent fact checking.

In recent years, China and Turkey – both Olympic-level jailers of journalists – have escalated their repression. Just last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed new laws authorizing punishment of individuals and online media for spreading so-called fake news and information that “disrespects” the state.

U.S. President Donald Trump is trying to go in the same direction. His constant branding of journalists as “liars” and “enemies of the people” echoes the Nazis’ preferred label for the media: the Lugenpresse (lying press). Even in the European Union, journalists are still jailed for criminal libel and insulting the government, according to a 2014 International Press Institute (IPI) study. “The vast majority of EU states maintain criminal defamation provisions that provide imprisonment as a possible punishment,” the IPI found.

There’s no shortcut to a vibrant free press; it takes a long period of trial and error for the norms and institutions of professional journalism to develop. Governments and civil societies must trust the process and maintain a thick skin, to allow the press to experiment, make mistakes and learn from them. While repressive media laws may benefit leaders in the short run, in the long run, they stunt the development of a country’s press, and threaten the success of democracies worldwide.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2019

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