Should Journalists be licenced?

(Back in late 1999 when I was the UNESCO’s Regional Communication Adviser for Asia, based in Kuala Lumpur,  I had to intervene to convince the Government of Cambodia to give up its intended plan to license the journalists. At the time I also managed the UNESCO project to establish the Cambodia Communication Institute and its affiliation to the Royal University of Phnom Penh. Strangely, one of the Cambodian journalists organisations wanted the government to license their trade. We requested the UNESCO National Commission of Cambodia to organize a national consultation for which UNESCO promised to provide advisory inputs. Together with Kavi Chongkittavorn, the Editor of the Nation newspaper of Thailand, I attended the consultation meeting and provided inputs to the discussions. Below is my keynote intervention against licensing the journalists. Eventually the Cambodian government gave up the idea.)

UNESCO’s intervention at the consultation organized by Cambodia National Commission for UNESCO on Qualifications of the Press 

First and foremost I should thank His Excellency Sok An, the senior Minister of the Council of Ministers who is also the Chairman of Cambodia National Commission for UNESCO, for providing this opportunity to put across UNESCO’s position on setting qualifications for journalists, editors as individual or Press as a whole. I am also encouraged by your government’s responsiveness in dealing with this question in an open consultative meeting with media professionals.

You will appreciate that this intervention is made in the light of UNESCO’s constitutional mandate to promote free flow of ideas.   As a member state of UNESCO, Cambodia certainly is an invaluable partner in upholding the UNESCO’s Constitution. UNESCO constitution enshrines “the free exchange of ideas and knowledge” and “the free flow of ideas by word and image” as primary principles to be defended and promoted by UNESCO and its member states. For the free-flow of ideas by word and image, unfettered freedom of the press is an essential condition.

In 1991 the General Conference of UNESCO endorsed a very important declaration in this direction.  Known as the Declaration of Windhoek, this declaration came out as a result of a UNESCO Regional Seminar to promote an independent and pluralistic press in Africa. In 1992 the UNESCO General Conference endorsed a similar declaration “Known as Alma Ata Declaration” to promote Independent Asian free and Pluralistic Media. Within the next three years there were declarations on development of independent and pluralistic media in Latin American, Arabian and East and Central European regions. The UNESCO members, including Cambodia, unanimously endorsed these declarations during respective general conference meetings to which they attended. The core point of all these declarations is clearly represented in the Windhoek declaration in the following manner.

  1. Consistent with article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the establishment, maintenance and fostering of an independent, pluralistic and free press is essential to the development and maintenance of democracy in a nation, and for economic development.
  •  By an independent press, we mean a press independent from governmental, political or economic control or from control of materials and infrastructure essential for the production and dissemination of newspapers, magazines and periodicals.
  • By a pluralistic press, we mean the end of monopolies of any kind and the existence of the greatest possible number of newspapers, magazines and periodicals reflecting the widest possible range of opinion within the community.

Over the time, almost all the Member States of UNESCO have understood that a vibrant, free press which can investigate and comment upon matters of public interest is essential to control corruption, to ensure that matters of public interest are properly understood and debated by citizens and generally to promote accountability and transparency of public and private sectors.

However, vibrant press may be, at the same time, it has to be professional and accountable to its users.  Perhaps, the lack of this accountability and professionalism among the press often invites the idea of stipulating qualifications for journalists and editors or licencing of newspapers. This is the main issue that we are going to discuss and the purpose of my intervention is to clarify UNESCO’s position in this regard.

The argument for setting qualifications for journalists and editors may on the surface appear to be logical because one could argue that most professions do have set of stipulated qualifications.  This aspect of the issue, I expect to deal separately.

 But, first of all let me mention that Journalist and editors only does, on a professional basis’ what the individual citizen is entitled to do. As Cushrow Irani, the celebrated Editor of “The Statesman” news paper in India, who is also a senior member of the UNESCO Advisory Committee on Press Freedom pointed out: “When an editor produces a newspaper he is doing no more and no less, on a professional basis, than to articulate the ordinary citizens’ concerns, grievances, hopes and aspirations.” In short the press is primarily a conduite by which people can communicate their aspirations and thus shape the common perceptions on day to day issues based on the information the society can glean from the press.

And this is basically why freedom of the press is not merely a matter of freedom for journalists, it is in fact is the barometer of the freedom of expression for all the people. Therefore, in the first place, any restrictions and qualifications to limit the press or the people working in the press would essentially impose limitation on the freedom of expression for everybody.

The freedom of expression is sanctified in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And Article 31 of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia reaffirms Cambodia’s commitment to abide by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

“The Kingdom of Cambodia shall recognize and respect Human Rights as stipulated in the United Nations Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the convents and conventions related to human rights, women and children’s rights”.

I therefore invite your attention to each and every word of the Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights because it is unambiguously clear in assuring everybody’s right to operate media.

Article 19 of the Universal declaration of human rights:

Every one has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; This right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

This is a Universal human right with no discrimination on race, religion gender or the level of educational and professional qualifications one could have. Therefore,  setting  qualifications and limitations to journalism would tantamount to be a violation of this article. 

The Declaration of Santiago (6 May 1994) Endorsed by the UNESCO General Conference at its twenty-eighth session – 1995 states that  “ In accordance with the fundamental rights of  free expression and association as stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the access to and the practice of journalism must be free, and not limited by any means.”

So, it is amply clear that UNESCO cannot endorse any legislative or executive requirements that impose limitations to the practice of journalism other than a code of practice agreed upon and put in to practice by the journalists themselves.  UNESCO’s commitment to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is uncompromising, in particular, because of its constitutional mandate to promote free flow of information. 

Of course, some autocratic governments in the past used to have kind of a licensing system for journalists.  Indonesia was one such example. Under General Suhartho’s presidency it was compulsory for journalists to join the Government sponsored journalists union. This allowed the leadership of the government sponsored journalists union to decide who should become a journalist and who should not. Moreover, Suharto did not allow anyone to publish a newspaper without obtaining an annual publication license from the Government. This implied that all newspapers have to tow the Suhartho’s line of thinking. No civilized democracy would  has such restrictions. But after the fall of Suharto, democratic transformation made the new government to abandon all these restrictions and to acknoweledge the freedom for any citizen to publish a newspaper and to become a journalist. 

This didn’t happened over night. After the fall of Suhartho the press became more liberal. Thousands of new publications appeared but some of them did not maintain the professional standards. After all people had no opportunity to learn and practice proper journalism during the thirty years of Suharto dictatorship. Amateuristic and often-bias way of treating news and stories was not uncommon during this transition from dictatorship to a democracy. The professional journalists and people who are concerned of building a democracy saw that this “yellow journalism” could hinder the professional development of the Indonesian press and its function in supporting a genuine democracy. In this event the new Indonesian government sought advise from UNESCO and we helped to establish a dialogue among journalists, parliamentarians, members of the armed forces and government officers to understand press freedom and each other’s role in building a democracy. Dialogue culminated at seminar held on 23 March 1999 to discuss a news press law. (some countries do not have a press law and their press publications rely solely on the provisions in their constitutions to uphold  freedom of expression. This is the best solution, but in Indonesian case there was a necessity to have a press law in order to protect professional functions of the journalists from many other bad laws.)

Therefore, purpose of this new press law was to recognise the free press as an essential condition for democracy. The new law which was subsequently adopted by the Indonesian parliament guaranteed the freedom of the press as a human right for every citizen. More importantly the press law also provided provisions to assure a professional press, not by setting qualifications for journalists and press but by help establishing a legally recognised self-regulatory mechanism for newspapers and the press community.  Under this law there is a press council established to function as a self regulatory body of the press community. This press council consists of the representatives nominated solely by journalist associations, the publishers association. It also has representatives from civil society, but again the journalists and publishers choose them. Journalist’s and publisher’s organizations nominate representatives from their profession as well as from civil society to the Press Council. There are no government representatives in the press council.  The Press Council is legally empowered to here complaints against the press from the members of public and to take appropriate actions. The press councils also have the obligation to promote and defend the press freedom and to launch training programmes to raise the standard of the profession. So, rather than setting qualifications for the journalists, editors and the Press, the new Indonesian government chose to help journalists to establish their own self regulatory mechanism through a Press Council totally represented by the professionals themselves.  Among the ASEAN countries, Indonesia, along with Thailand and the Philippines is now in the forefront in developing a professional press with similar mechanisms.

We presume that Cambodia wishes to develop its democracy to be in par with its more democratized ASEAN partners. The government’s initiative to organize this consultation shows the responsiveness of the leaders and their acceptance of media as an integral part of a democratic system. Free and professional media will keep the government clean and honest, making its services more efficient and timely.  The free press will allow the government to hear the voiceless, and make them to express their aspirations, wishes and opinions heard, and thus participate through democratic dialogue in the decision making process which concerns them. This all can be achieved with the help of free, independent and pluralistic media.

The Royal government of Cambodia no doubt is committed to support the development of a professional press. There are complaints that some elements of Cambodian press are not up to the professional standards. This is reflected in two of the most recent authoritative publications I have read recently on Cambodian Media. (quote)

1).  ‘Descriptions of Cambodia’s Press are usually paraphrased with a paradox “vigorous but not professional” or “free but not responsible”. (Loosing Control – Freedom of the Press in Asia by Louis Williams and Roland Rich (eds) 2000  p.33)’

2). ‘ The constitution says “Khmer citizens shall have freedom of expression, press, publication and assembly (Article 41). …. The response was the emergence of huge number of newspapers and bulletins…..From the beginning most of these publications were affiliated with political parties and used their new found media freedom to write biased and often slanderous stories about the issues of the day (ibid p. 33)”‘

3). “There is no code of ethics, no professional standards. It is a big problem for those of us who care about our profession – Kher Muntit” (restructuring the media in post conflict societies; four perspectives – edited by Monroe E. Price, 2000).”

But all our sincerity to raise professional standard of the press should not make us rush to take decisions which are counter productive  . Here, I  would like to recall what  Madam Corzon Akino, the former Philippine’s President who transformed an authoritarian government into a democracy stated. I quote:

“ So closely intertwined is the concept of press freedom with democracy that a leader must approach any attempt to impose even the most legal limitations on it with great care. The risks are great, not only to one’s reputation as a democratic leader, but to ones virtue and commitment to democracy. For the totalitarian temptation is immense and there are always sycophants who would be willing to help one stretch the meaning of democracy to include a multitude of despotic sins.”

You may agree that abusive elements notwithstanding, by and large the Cambodian mainstream media have now become more professional than it was.  When I say mainstream it means, those newspapers, which are not only regular but are treated by readers as independent press with editorial autonomy and credibility. (‘the independent press” is defined in the Windhoek declaration)

Of course, in a democracy any political party or a group should be able to publish a newspaper of their own. These publications usually promote their agenda and ideologies.  The people who read those newspapers are largely those who are sympathizing with that particular political group.  But when we define Independent Press, as stated in the Windhoek declaration, we mean a press independent from governmental, political or economic control.

Now let me make few remarks on the question of professionalism. Mr. kavi Chongkitavorn will deal this aspect more thoroughly.  On this point, let me recall again “ that Journalist only does, on a professional basis’ what the individual citizen is entitled to do. Journalism is a necessary occupation, because ordinary citizen have no time nor do they have the discipline and training required to seek and impart information on a professional basis. This ‘professional basis’’ among other things includes the objectivity of information. You may know that there are three basic rules of objectivity

  1. “The separation of fact from opinions
  2. A balance account of a debate
  3. The validation of journalistic statements by reference to authoritative others” (Brian McNair)

(Explain – Opinion columns, editorials)

When journalist and press do not follow the rules of objectivity, sooner or later, they are bound be discredited by the readers. In a society with pluralistic press others who follows the rule of objectivity and win the credibility from the readers will contribute to the demise of non-professional press.

Now there is an argument, that being a profession, journalism also should have a set of stipulated qualifications as in the case of doctors and lawyers.

In this regard first of all I wish to point out that It is difficult, if not impossible, to categorize Journalism as a single occupation practiced across all media. Its functions vary even within the same medium (EXPLAIN DIFFERENT TYPE OF JOURNALISTIC OCCUPATIONS) To examine the claim of ‘professionalism’ as an occupational ideology of journalists one should begin by examining what constitute a professional category. Let us examine one characteristic of a profession such as of doctors and lawyers and its applicability to the journalists.

One requirement, to become a doctor or a lawyer, which distinguish profession from occupation is the need of prescribed professional qualifications. Thus, once qualified they are considered as learned experts, with a licence to provide services to their clients.

Should journalism be limited to highly educated people?. No doubt higher education is an advantage for journalists. But higher education is also a privilege of few and we don’t discriminate people by not allowing their right to exercises freedom of the expression because they did not have the opportunity and possibility to acquire higher education. Often we find very good journalist who make outstanding contributions to their publications without even having a bachelors degree in journalism.

The editor of the Sunday Chronicle, James Drawbell, once wrote that: (I quote)

“’ this jungle, always struggling for survival, the make up of a newspaper team is, in the social and educational sense, completely ‘classless’…A newspaper has to draw its staff from every level of society if it to be truly representative…I have had on my staff at the same time three ex-editors with university degrees. Their Oxford experience was useful…. but….they were indistinguishable from, and certainly not more valuable than, the other members of the paper (several of whom had left school at fifteen)…(Quoted by Bromley . M. 1997 p.332)

Many editors did believe in inherent talent than qualifications. According to the Editor of the Daily Mail  the journalists once acquire necessary skills through on the job training begin to prove their “burning individual talents.”  Motivations for graduates to join the profession by and large had being suspected by the editors who themselves were often elevated because of their exceptional ‘talents’ rather than whatever the educational qualifications they may have possessed.

On the other hand unlike with the professions such as doctors and lawyers who should have specialist expertise to provide advice individually, and also have the responsibility towards individual clients, journalists are required to perform a routine part of a production process in which the media organization, rather than the individual journalist, is perceived as the producer of the product.

This point is very important in making the distinction between Journalists and other professionals such as doctors and lawyers. Lawyers and doctors as individuals are directly responsible for the advise they provide to individual clients. Since the individual clients have to rely on their professional advise the doctors and the lawyers need to have professional qualifications to assure that their advice and treatments to individuals are reliable. 

 But if we take the case of Journalists,  they are not required to provide professional advice or to treat individuals. Rather, they take part in a collective effort in their organizations to seek and distribute news, which goes through an editorial process supervised by senior editors . Unlike in the case of Lawyers and Doctors who are responsible for individual clients, the service of journalists is geared towards population as a whole. Therefore the public as a body is able to determine the professional ability of the Journalist and the credibility of the newspaper they represent.  The performance of newspapers is subjected to the public scrutiny on daily basis.

This is very much the case of politicians and others such as artists. In particular, Artists are considered to be professionals. But we don’t set educational qualifications for them. As in the case of Journalists, performance of politicians and artists are public.  Therefore, the public can make a collective assessment of their performance, instead of any claims of professional qualifications.

Unlike in the case with journalists the advice of doctors and lawyers to their respective clients are confidential and not for the public.  The individual who seek advice from lawyers and doctors hardly can go public to test the validity of advice given by a particular doctor or a lawyer. That is why doctors and lawyers need a set of stipulated qualifications as a guarantee for their individual clients so they can rely on them even in an event of a life and death question for the concern individual.

Nonetheless, journalists in many parts of the world would want others to consider their occupation as a ‘profession’. Without such a claim it would be difficult for the journalists to justify their responsibility to the readers and the demands for occupational privileges, which are not normally available to the other trades at large.  But these professional privileges of journalists are a necessity to ensure peoples right to receive and impart information. One such priviledge they are entitle is the right to keep their information sources confidential.

If the journalists do not have the privilege not to disclose the source of their information,  people who have information will not come forward to provide information at their free will. Similarly the journalists should have the privileges to access newsmakers, officials, politicians and other public servants in order to seek and provide information to their readers. Without these professional privileges for journalists people will not be in a position to use their right to information. Thus the beneficiaries of those privileges are in fact the common citizens rather than for the journalist.  So occupational privilege of the journalist upon which most people tend to claim journalism as a professional category is not a reasons to impose qualifications for journalists.

Even if we leave out all these arguments and still go ahead to set qualifications for journalists, editors and press, on the assumption that it will make a better press, what is the guarantee that an editor or journalist who acquired stipulated qualifications,  will not produce an  unethical substandard publication. After all it is not impossible to find people with unethical behaviors occupying in the well-respected professions which requires stipulated qualifications.

Thus there shouldn’t be any special laws applicable only to journalists. journalists only does, in a more professional manner what everybody else is expected to do. Journalists, like any others are equal before the rule of law, which necessarily provide all justifications to deal any illegal activity they may commit.

The defense of press freedom is a task, which needs constant, universal and unfailing support from citizens and their elected representatives. Freedom of expression is no abstract or passive right. To have a meaning, it has to be used – used constantly, used responsibly, used well. We should help journalist to use it well by helping them to organize their own self-regulatory mechanisms, training programmes and voluntary code of practices and should never stipulate qualifications because freedom of expression is for all. Journalists are just a tiny but indispensable category which use this freedom in a more professional manner on our behalf.

Thank you

Wijayananda Jayaweera

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