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The Value of Fake News

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.

NEW YORK – 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 Meles'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 Meles. 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, with a new reformist prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, in office for just one year, Ethiopia has made so much progress in freeing jailed journalists and lifting press controls that it is hosting World Press Freedom Day.

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

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