The Peach State or ‘Banana Republic’? Critics Howl Over Georgia GOP’s Proposal to Target Journalists With Secretive Ethics Panel

“It’s not the government’s role to tell journalists how to do their jobs. This bill is unnecessary state meddling with the press.”

By Julia Conley, staff writer for Common Dreams. Published 4-4-2019

Georgia state Rep. Andy Welch proposed a bill that would establish a “journalism ethics board” in the state. (Photo: @andywelchga/Twitter)

Press freedom advocates on Thursday warned of dangers posed by a bill put forward by Republicans in Georgia that would create a journalism ethics board in the state and subject reporters to fines if they don’t comply with the new rules.

The so-called “Ethics in Journalism Act” (H.B. 734) would establish an “independent” ethics board with members from the journalism profession selected by the University of Georgia, which is run by the state. The board would create “canons of ethics,” set up a system for issuing and investigating complaints about journalists and news outlets, and issue advisory opinions on whether news organizations have violated laws.

Under the proposal, news outlets would also be required to turn over materials—including video and audio files of interviews—if a subject requests the files. Refusal to release the materials could result in lawsuits or fines.

As the Journal-Constitution noted, the rule would give the government more power over journalists than the public has over the legislature:

In calling for subjects of interviews to get access to photographs, audio and video recordings, Welch is setting a higher standard than he and other members of the General Assembly are under. The General Assembly long ago exempted itself from the Georgia Open Records Act, which applies to all other governmental entities in the state.

Six GOP state representatives proposed the bill, with state Rep. Andy Welch leading the effort. Welch recently complained that state reporters have exhibited “bias” when asking him questions about legislation, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The Georgia First Amendment Foundation said the proposal would lead to violations of journalists’ constitutional rights.

“This is clearly an effort to rein in those who have been scrutinizing what’s been happening at the Legislature,” Richard T. Griffiths, the group’s president, told the Journal-Constitution. “Frankly, this is the kind of proposal one would expect to surface in a banana republic, not the Peach State.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists called the proposal “unnecessary state meddling with the press.”

The bill is just the latest suggestion by Republicans—including President Donald Trump—that the press is untrustworthy and should face consequences for covering politicians in a way that lawmakers find unfavorable.

Adam Klasfeld, a reporter for Courthouse News, tweeted that any reporter willing to sit on the state’s journalism ethics board “should weigh long and hard whether he or she is competent to judge the journalism ethics of others.”

In a statement, the Radio Television Digital News Association issued a reminder that journalists already abide by ethics rules, including the group’s own code—”one of the most cited in the world.”

“Journalism ethics are a tool to empower the public to make informed decision about the information consumption,” said the group, “not a weapon by which government can silence journalism and avoid the accountability journalism is constitutionally mandated to provide the people of Georgia.”

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