On a trip to Ethiopia in the 1990s, I met with the then prime minister, Meles Zenawi, to try to persuade him to stop jailing journalists. Since his guerillas had ousted a repressive Soviet-backed dictatorship a few years before, there had been an explosion of sometimes wildly inaccurate little newspapers, many of them attacking Zenawi. So he cracked down, introducing laws criminalising what he called “insults” to the government. Ethiopia became one of the world’s top jailers of journalists.
Now, with a new reformist prime minister Abiy Ahmed in office, Ethiopia has made so much progress in freeing jailed journalists and lifting press controls that it is hosting World Press Freedom Day on May 3.
But don’t celebrate yet. Some in the newly freed press are publishing sometimes inaccurate stories and are attacking Ahmed. With the first free elections in 15 years taking place next year, he is considering restoring some of the press controls he had cancelled.
Zenawi’s crackdown holds lessons: journalists are irrepressible, and trying to control them achieves nothing in the long run. It merely delays the development of a professional media.
“Our journalists are not professional like those in the United States and Western Europe,” Zenawi 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.”
Over more than three decades of fighting for a worldwide free press, and as an early chairperson of the Committee to Protect Journalists, I have heard arguments such as Zenawi’s 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 developing a credible free press, this approach impedes it.
I began seeking historical evidence for Zenawi’s claim that insufficiently professional journalism justified the suppression of the press; that way, I could counter his argument on my next trip. I found one precedent in early US history. In fact, Zenawi’s words were eerily similar to arguments made in the 18th century by US 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.
Adams succeeded temporarily in stifling journalists in 1798, when he signed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which authorised 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.
Fortunately for US journalists, Thomas Jefferson of the Democratic Republicans was elected president in 1800. Within two years, the alien and sedition laws either expired or were repealed. That opened the way for the American press to experiment, thereby developing a culture of deep and accurate reporting, including consistent fact-checking.
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. Politicians must trust the process and maintain a thick skin. While repressive media laws may benefit leaders in the short run, in the long run, they stunt the development of a country’s press.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, media of all types flourished. But some of the newly independent successor states embraced the idea that media “guidelines” were needed. Many enacted laws that were advertised as ensuring a free press were used to penalise journalists for aggressive, critical reporting. Libel was criminalised and enormous fines were imposed on independent publications, broadcasters and bloggers.
China and Turkey have ramped up their repression in recent years. Just last month, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin signed new laws authorising punishment of individuals and online media for spreading so-called fake news and information that “disrespects” the state.
US 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 Lügenpresse (lying press).
Allowing the press to experiment, make mistakes and learn from them has been crucial to the success of democracies worldwide. That is why governments and civil societies need to be vigilant in supporting a free press, even — or especially — if it is still developing. — © Project Syndicate
Josh Friedman is the director of international programmes at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism