Latin America Continues to ‘License’ Journalists

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By: Mark Fitzgerald

Among press freedom organizations, it’s simply a given that mandatory licensing of journalists — and the related Latin American tradition of requiring membership in a professional colegio — are restrictions on the press every bit as dangerous as outright government censorship.

The Declaration of Chapultepec, which was drafted by the Inter American Press Association (IAPA) in 1994 and has since been signed by the leaders of 22 nations, sets aside its eighth principle to condemn the practice: “The membership of journalists in guilds, their affiliation to professional and trade associations and the affiliation of the media with business groups must be strictly voluntary.”

Just last month, the official “rapporteurs” for freedom of expression of the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, and the Organization of American States (OAS) went out of their way to declare that “individual journalists should not be required to be licensed or to register” and that “there should be no legal restrictions on who may practice journalism.”

Despite the best efforts of its opponents, licensing or the colegio system continue to persist in nations such as Venezuela, Ecuador and Honduras. Nicaragua just recently passed a colegio law, although it has not yet been formally enacted, and similar “professionalizing” proposals continue to surface elsewhere.

But perhaps the most remarkable example of journalism heresy on this issue is playing out now in Brazil, where the courts have stopped a licensing law from taking effect — and the most adamant proponents of the law are journalists and journalism professors.

The National Journalists Federation (known by the acronym Fenaj in Portuguese) reacted with outrage in December when a federal judge suspended a long-standing requirement that Brazilians who want to be journalists must first get a degree in the subject and then be registered by the government. The requirements were first struck down by a federal judge in 2001, only to be reinstated — on an appeal brought by Fenaj and a union that represents radio and television workers.

Fenaj complained the decision “legally harms” the nation’s 110,000 registered journalists and the 18,000 students who graduate from Brazilian j-schools annually. “We affirm that it is strange and inadmissible that the Brazilian judicial system, 34 years after the regulation (was adopted) and 15 years after it was promulgated in the Constitution, would insist on deregulating the journalism profession at a time when the entire world is arguing the ethics of mass communication, the effects of manipulation by the media, the importance of information in the service of society — the basic values for the exercise of professional journalism,” Fenaj said in a statement in Portuguese on its Web site.

Joining the journalists organization in complaining about the “confused reasoning” and “unreflective” ruling by Judge Manoel Alvares was the National Forum of Journalism Professors. In their “public repudiation,” the j-school profs called on their colleagues to defend the licensing and degree requirement in every classroom. “We understand that only (higher education) will be able to assure a solid preparation for the performance of professional journalists who are of value to Brazilian society,” the Forum said in a statement.

The Brazilian professional and academic journalism groups are clearly at odd with international counterparts. Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, for instance, lists the colegio requirement as a threat to journalists wherever it is proposed or enacted. International courts, too, frown on the practice: A 1985 advisory opinion by the Inter-American Human Rights Court asserted that Costa Rica’s licensing law restricted freedom of expression and thus violated the American Convention of Human Rights. Costa Rica’s Supreme Court later agreed, declaring the law unconstitutional.

The IAPA in particular has been effective in recent years in persuading governments to either drop their existing licensing and colegio requirements, or resist proposals to make them law. Colombia President Alvaro Uribe, for instance, has vetoed one law approved by Congress that would re-impose requirements that journalists obtain a degree and register with the Ministry of Education to be legally recognized as a professional journalist. In 1998, the Colombian Constitutional Court struck down a nearly identical law that had been in effect since 1975.

Congress has since passed another version, and Uribe has said he’ll wait to see what the Constitutional Court says about the measure before he decides whether to sign or veto it.

In a December 2000 letter to Nicaragua’s president, IAPA officials contended that the colegio system was falling apart in the hemisphere: “The countries of Latin America have begun to understand that the free flow of ideas and news must not be restricted by legal requirements of obligatory guild membership or of a mandatory university degree in order to work as a journalist, even though these requirements may have the noble aim of raising the level of the profession of journalism.”

But that president — the now-disgraced Arnoldo Aleman who is serving a 20-year sentence for embezzlement and money-laundering — never did veto the law, which has not taken effect only because of a legal technicality. And the enthusiasm of some Brazilian journalists for licensing shows the Latin American colegio system has some life in it yet.

Pan-am Highway

Costa Rican police arrested the owner of the business magazine Estrategia y Negocios on suspicion he ordered the murder of Costa Rican freelance reporter Ivannia Mora Rodriguez, 33, who was shot and killed sicario-style by two assailants on a motorcycle as she drove her car on a downtown San Jose street Dec. 23. The magazine owner, Eugenio Millot, was arrested in Costa Rica as he attempted to board a flight to his native Uruguay, The Associated Press reported. Mora, who specialized in economics reporting, had worked at Millot’s magazine until a few weeks ago, according to the story. The Inter American Press Association had earlier reported that journalist Henry Bastos, who was in the car when Mora was assassinated, told police there was no attempt at robbery. … Colombia broadcast journalist William Soto Cheng, 46, was shot and killed Dec. 18 by two men on a motorcycle who approached him as he arrived for work at the Telemar television station in Puerto de Buenaventura in the southeastern part of the country. IAPA reported Soto Cheng had received threats since last October, when he reported that police and military were involved in election irregularities, allegations he withdrew when several criminal defamation charges were filed against him. … A U.S. freelance reporter, Sharon Stevenson, 57, was brutally beaten Dec. 10 as she left her house in Lima, Peru, where for the past decade she has reported on efforts to eradicate coca leaf cultivation, The Associated Press reported. … On Dec. 11, a former Brazil Military Police corporal, Araujo Agostinho, was sentenced to 18 years in prison for the 2002 murder of Savio Brandao, the founder and president of the daily Folha do Estado in the south-central Brazilian state of Mato Grosso, IAPA reported. … The Brazilian Newspaper Association (ANJ) is forming a national network to monitor violations of free expression in Brazil. ANJ said the network will be run in partnership with the Brazilian office of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). More than a dozen radio stations and other media outlets have been closed or attacked violently in recent weeks, Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) reported Dec. 19. “We are deeply concerned about the dangers of the government’s ‘politics of desperation’, (because) some members of parliament from the ruling Fanmi Lavalas party have called on supporters of the beleaguered president to take up arms,” said RSF Secretary-General Robert Menard.

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