A licensing system for journalists being discussed in Quebec is a form of press regulation that would put limits on the free flow of information.
The licensing system would create a “professional journalist” designation, backed by Quebec law, that could provide for preferential access to government sources and extra rights to protection of sources.
That may sound seductive to some journalists. Exclusivity, bargaining power, prestige and money may be seen as side benefits to a professional licensing system administered by a body of journalists. But the damage to press freedom, and therefore to individual journalists, card-carrying or otherwise, would be considerable.
How? Controlling access to sources or to news conferences would by definition mute or limit some voices. Who might be shut down? Those who cannot afford professional schools, if that is what is required for a designation. Or those who find, whether at 14 or 94, that they have something to say, in a newspaper or on Facebook or in forms not yet invented. The group of people excluded would be massive.
And the free flow of information would be subject to state control. Government advertising would be restricted (under one proposal) to those news organizations that meet accepted proportions of “professional” journalists. News organizations that don’t could be destroyed – including Internet start-ups that could one day become as large and powerful as the Huffington Post.
A proposal to make French-language proficiency a requirement of journalists could shut down voices in minority-language media. The proposal shows that political imperatives other than journalistic ones could be imposed on a licensing system.
What is a journalist? It helps to be able to read and write – but a camera may be enough. What really matters is zeal for the story, within the boundaries set by laws of defamation, privacy and so on. At the very moment that a multiplicity of talents and voices, emerging thanks to new technologies, has helped to topple dictators in the Middle East, Quebec is rejecting the marketplace – of ideas, talents, desires, money and ingenuity – and trying to replace it with state-approved controls.