Latin Licensing of Journalists
It is ironic that one of the most important fronts in the struggle for a free press in the world today is in Costa Rica, a nation that takes pride in its tradition of stable government and respect for human rights.
The case involves Stephen Schmidt, a U.S. citizen and resident of Costa Rica formerly employed by the Tico Times, an English-language newspaper published in the capital, San Jose. Under Costa Rican law, only graduates of the national university are allowed to become members of the Colegio de Periodistas de Costa Rica, an association that claims the authority to license all journalists who work in the country. Because Schmidt did not attend the national university, he was accused in 1980 of illegal exercise of a profession. For the last five years, Schmidt has fought the charge through Costa Rica’s courts.
He recently sought the help of the Inter-American Press Assn., which has defended freedom of the press in Latin America against both Marxist governments like Nicaragua’s and right-wing dictators like Paraguay’s Gen. Alfredo Stroessner. The IAPA persuaded the Costa Rican government to seek an advisory opinion on the Schmidt case from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Last September a distinguished panel of jurists from seven different American nations began hearing testimony on the matter.
The panel learned that 10 other countries in Latin America give similar licensing power to national journalists’ associations, although few have enforced it as aggressively as Costa Rica did in the Schmidt case. Costa Rican officials defended the practice, arguing that it helps maintain journalistic standards, and likened the journalism colegio to a bar association that maintains the ethics and standards of the legal profession.
The response came not just from the IAPA but also from other journalism groups, including the American Newspaper Publishers Assn., the American Society of Newspaper Editors and the Newspaper Guild. Their attorneys argued that free expression is a far more fundamental right than merely being able to practice journalism as a profession. If and when journalists are subject to legal restraint, it must be exercised after the fact, through libel laws, rather than through arbitrary procedures like licensing.
The court’s advisory opinion is due to be published next month, and it is hoped that the panel will defend Schmidt’s position. However well-meaning Costa Rica’s leaders were when they enacted a journalists’ licensing law, in practice it is a potentially dangerous procedure. Licensing is inimical to the whole purpose of journalism, which is free and independent inquiry.
Finally, any government or agency that bestows a license can take it away. In Latin America, especially, where so many countries are struggling their way back to democracy after long periods of oppressive military rule, governments must not be conceded additional tools that can be used to stifle a questioning or critical press. Costa Ricans take justifiable pride in their nation’s being in the forefront of respect for human rights in Latin America. It belongs in the forefront for freedom of the press as well.
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