The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A board to oversee Georgia journalists sounds like Orwellian fiction. The proposal is all too real.

Georgia lawmakers celebrate the end of the 2019 legislative session in the House chambers on April 2. (John Bazemore/AP)

When Richard Griffiths, president of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, heard about the bill filed last week in his state’s House of Representatives, he thought for a moment that it was an April Fools joke.

If only.

The bill — a proposal to oversee journalists sponsored by six Republican lawmakers — is no wacky prank.

Pretty clearly, it’s an effort to lock watchdog reporters in a soundproof kennel where the public can’t hear their warning barks.

“Frankly, this is the kind of proposal one would expect to surface in a banana republic, not the Peach State,” Griffiths said.

Echoing the government’s Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s dystopian novel, “1984,” the proposal would establish a “Journalism Ethics Board” to create professional standards for news people.

And, among other provisions, it would require reporters to surrender their recordings, photographs and notes to an interviewee upon request. If a news outlet refuses, it would be subject to legal action and fines.

James Salzer, who has been covering politics for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for decades, observes a glaring irony in the bill.

The state legislature “long ago exempted itself from the Georgia Open Records Act, which applies to all other governmental entities in the state,” he wrote.

Unsurprisingly, the bill’s chief sponsor, Andy Welch, has been unhappy with his media coverage.

Welch is leaving office, but his unwelcome parting gift will live on into the next session, where its very presence may have a chilling effect on journalists.

It sends a clear message that Big Brother is ready to pounce.

It may go nowhere — there is that little obstacle called the First Amendment to be considered, after all — but it’s still troubling.

Meanwhile, the state’s politicians certainly seem to need the scrutiny.

Georgia politics have been very much in the national spotlight because of voter-suppression complaints, with the press playing a laudable role in bringing problems to light.

Republican Gov. Brian Kemp (who until last fall was secretary of state, also known as the guy who supervises elections) was sued for suppressing minority votes after an Associated Press investigation. The AP reported, shortly before November’s midterm election, that his office has not approved thousands of voter registrations.

Kemp — who narrowly won the governor’s race against Democratic rising star Stacey Abrams — said that his actions merely followed a 2017 state law that requires voter registration information to match precisely with Department of Motor Vehicles or Social Security Administration data.

But civil rights advocates say that law disproportionately hurts black and Latino voters, and Abrams has called Kemp an “architect of voter suppression.”

After much coverage and criticism, Kemp signed legislation last week that addresses some of the complaints. He did it quietly, on the last day of the legislative session, and behind closed doors.

Would he have done anything at all without the AP’s investigation and intense media scrutiny from national and local journalists? It seems unlikely.

There may be no direct tie between the voting-suppression concerns and the proposed journalism bill.

But controlling the pesky press corps would mean one less annoyance on the road to political malfeasance.

Granted, journalists are far from perfect, and their practices deserve to be held to reasonable standards. But there already is pretty good agreement about journalistic ethics, available for all to see.

Respectable news organizations have codes of ethics — many of them available to the public. The Society of Professional Journalists has a well-accepted code as well.

As for the would-be requirement to turn over what’s obtained during newsgathering, Cynthia Counts, an Atlanta-based First Amendment lawyer, told Columbia Journalism Review that the bill’s language is in direct conflict with the state’s reporter-privilege protections.

“You want the press to be independent,” she told CJR’s Stephen Fowler.

Clearly, not everyone agrees.

Republican legislators in Indiana and South Carolina have at various times proposed bills to control journalists, too.

Some of these are little more than publicity stunts, and that may be true of the Georgia bill.

But — in a climate in which the press increasingly is under siege, especially from President Trump — these efforts send an unsubtle message. It sounds a lot like a warning: Ease up, or else.

If some politicians had their way, reporters would do nothing but churn out propaganda for the Ministry of Truth. Sorry, this isn’t Orwell’s Oceania. It’s America.

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