Today represents an important watershed in the history of investigative journalism. In 1893, Emile Zola published J’Accuse. The piece exposed the antisemitism of the Third Republic. In 1894, the Alsatian Jew, Alfred Dreyfus
Zola faces the mob, oil on canvas by Henry de Groux, 1898
was accused of sending secret documents to the Germans.
The charges were trumped up, but Dreyfus was found guilty and sent to Devil’s Island. While others investigated the case, believing that Dreyfus had been set up, it was Zola’s outraged and impassioned defense of Dreyfus that helped turned public sentiment around. However, it came at a high cost. Zola was arrested and fined 3,000 francs and sentenced to 1 year in prison after the Assembly voted 321-22 in favour of the punishment.
Although the case would not be resolved until the early 20th century, the Dreyfus Affair demonstrated the value of a press that was willing to use investigation and research to expose the corruption of important institutions. It also demonstrated how the popular press could be used to mobilize public opinion. Zola’s J’Accuse is a timely reminder of why we need to maintain a free and independent press which we are losing day by day.