Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Certifying Journalists

A government screening out poor journalists is incompatible with democratic values and runs against the spirit of the constitution

Dharma Adhikari
Urgh, here we go. After decades of democratic movements and revolutions and a concurrent gain in press freedom legislation, we have started talking about licensing journalists.

The recent report prepared by the ‘Journalism Ethics Qualification Test Taskforce (2072)’ of Press Council Nepal (PCN) hopes to separate the grain from the chaff: there must be a distinction between a genuine and a fake journalist; one can no longer be a journalist simply because one wishes to be so.

The crux of the report: although the basic professional values remain the same, journalism is changing fast, especially in terms of new technologies. The country requires highly skilled journalists with multi-tasking abilities, across platforms.  Without a qualification test for the professionals, the quality of media is deteriorating, and ethical compliance remains unsatisfactory. We need a more responsible, accountable, systematic, efficient and dignified profession. Thus there is the need to certify journalists in the country.  

The recommendations: PCN should form a committee consisting of journalism experts to conduct mandatory qualification test of journalists. New entrants should possess a Bachelor’s degree in journalism or other disciplines, and in the case of those already working, at least an SLC certificate.

The journalism test, held annually across the country, will consist of a written exam, an oral interview and a practical reporting assignment, covering fundamental topics in journalism.

In addition to the test for fresh entrants, the taskforce also recommends categorization of journalists because lacking such an arrangement “it has become difficult to acknowledge the qualifications, competencies, and contributions of journalists”. The report suggests categorizing journalists on the recommendation of an expert committee, provisioned in a PCN by-law.

The rationales for ascertaining qualification of journalists: several countries already do so. And even India has tried similar measures (without success). Besides, we need to establish independent, efficient, dignified and wholesome journalism to strengthen democracy, make journalism compatible with the standards of a profession, and to nurture internationally competitive journalism as well as maintain self-respect of journalists.

On the surface, some motives for the qualification test appear reasonable. Who wouldn’t want to elevate the standards of journalism in Nepal, if such tests helped to do so? If lawyers or doctors are licensed, why not journalists? For years, the Federation of Nepali Journalists (FNJ) itself has been wishing to weed out many non-professionals from its membership of around 10,000 which include many political cadres.

More crucial questions are: Who should initiate and undertake such tests, and in what manner?
A government screening out poor journalists is incompatible with democratic values and runs against the spirit of the constitution that guarantees freedom of the press and expression. Anybody, irrespective of age, class and education level, should be able to express himself or herself without restraints. The tasks of journalists are protected as fundamental human rights.

In recent years, the PCN appears overzealous in its activities, trying to make sweeping reforms with one committee report or recommendation after another while the institution itself is limited in its authority and outdated in structure. PCN, far from being independent, remains subservient to the government. Any reforms to enhance journalistic excellence should be initiated and undertaken by the professionals themselves. It is another matter if they are willing and ready to take up this challenge.

The taskforce, of course, is cognizant of the potentially adverse implications of such a test on press freedom. It does call for a systematic and autonomous committee to oversee the test, ironically under the PCN. Without a fully independent regulatory body that is capable of bringing on board the largest number of professionals, its efforts will remain futile. PCN should first reform itself for it to be able to reform the press.

Despite the recommendations to the contrary, one of the taskforce members, Kundan Aryal, believes the main question concerning the professional entrance test is the independence of the qualifications test board. “And, I am personally not in favor of making such certificate compulsory”.

The PCN taskforce has rightly noted that journalism in Nepal is gradually turning into a profession or a trade and that there is a difference between individual and institutional freedom of expression. Journalism as an institution is definitely in need of regulation, but it has to be self-initiated, not imposed by the government.

The PCN could at best facilitate debates and dialogues on reform, leaving the actual task of charting out reforms to the professionals, the industry or the academia. For instance, they could achieve voluntary professional certification of journalists via already existing training institutes such as the Nepal Press Institute or other college programs. The UK-based National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ), an industry initiated independent charity that offers qualifications for pre-entry trainee journalists and working journalists, could also serve as a model.

The concern now is control of the press in the guise of entry requirements, which effectively is a licensing scheme. Other subtle forms of control, such as the Department of Information (DoI) press cards, and accreditation are already there. We can recall the occasional clamors of aggrieved journalists barred from entering certain events by government or political party or of preferential treatment to media persons with certain political leanings.  We have seen an array of syndicates of journalists, in the form of professional membership groups, toeing certain party lines.

Are we on the side of global values of press freedom and international conventions on free speech?  Several international laws and conventions, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) recognize that the right to express oneself through the mass media belongs to everyone. Other international laws prohibit government licensing or registering of individual journalists and see entry requirements as depriving the public of their right to information from diverse sources.

Our constitution guarantees freedom of expression to any citizen. Are we becoming regressive? Even the Latin American governments, once notorious for their strong licensing schemes, are loosening control. For over 45 years, Brazilian law required a diploma in journalism for anyone wishing to enter the profession. The country’s Supreme Court, in 2009, overturned the law on the ground that it breached freedom of expression.

One obvious impetus for the new control measures, and perhaps a more urgent one, is the explosive power of new media that have fragmented traditional forms of journalism, making it impossible for our regulators to identify individual operators from institutional brands. They are also increasingly confused about who is a journalist and who is not. Bureaucracy is about rationalizing things. But the internet is unruly, always threatening public order with chaos. And it must irritate our bureaucrats that public order itself is served better with freedom of expression than by curtailing it.

It is not surprising why some journalists are advocating for qualification tests. Licensing schemes such as entry requirements can help fortify the profession for those who meet the requirements. Academic degree requirement means those with degrees can secure salaried jobs that would have gone to cheaper workers without degrees. Unionizing via professional groups can improve bargaining power with employers or the government. And categorization will, ultimately and formally, bestow upon our professional seniors that “barista patrakar” crown, accompanied perhaps by state favors or handouts.

That’s a cultural reality we cannot deny. And as Rwanda has shown, we cannot escape the weight of history. In the early 1990s, the Rwandan media openly fomented genocide that killed at least half a million people. The result: a strict licensing scheme is in place today. Nepal’s vibrant press has historically stood for an open profession, and any government restrain in the name of regulation should come as a smack in the face of journalists.

The PCN report is both naive and unworkable in as much as it abdicates oversight to an agency subservient to government. Nevertheless, as Aryal puts it, at the least the document has raised the issue on the professional capabilities of a journalist. Further debates on self-initiated qualification benchmarks or their enforcement will benefit everyone.

Published in Republica, 16 August 2016