One of the more insidious ways in which Third World countries have reached out to control the press is by the "licensing" of journalists. Ostensibly done to give journalists the full protection of the law, the practice actually enables governments so minded to control the entry and tenure of journalists in their chosen profession. An effort to extend state licensing and give it legitimacy has been at the heart of a long-running Third World campaign to reduce the sting of a critical and inquiring press. That a community of the not-so-free press has been created under UNESCO patronage has helped this unfortunate practice to spread.
All this is why partisans of a free press are cheering a unanimous recent decision by the Inter- American Court of Human Rights in a case brought in Costa Rica. It is an advisory opinion, not one that binds even Costa Rica, a democratic and generally benevolent government that has long had on its books a statute requiring local journalists to belong to an official "colegio" of journalists. Nonetheless, it is apparently the first time that a forum of this sort has ruled on the issue, and the community of free-press groups is rightly seizing on the court's decision in order to make it the standard to which all governments will be held.
And a robust standard it is. "It is not enough to guarantee the right to establish and manage organs of mass media," the opinion said. "It is also necessary that journalists and in general all those who dedicate themselves professionally to the mass media can work with sufficient protection for the freedom and independence that the occupation requires." The court went on to acknowledge that there is an argument, based on considerations of general welfare, that licensing journalists is a way to guasociety objective and truthful information. But, it said, with what seems to us unanswerable logic, it would be a contradiction to invoke a restriction to freedom of expression as a means of guaranteeing that very freedom.
The global battle of a free press is, however, never finished. It has to be waged in some unlikely places too. In the letter in which it reported the licensing decision, the World Press Freedom Committee summed up the latest push and pull at UNESCO; no surprises there. It was a surprise, however, to learn that only a few weeks ago did the White House drop a longstanding requirement that foreign correspondents accompany their applications for press credentials with a letter from their embassies. The White House had used the requirement as a convenient way of double-checking the bona fides of the correspondents, the Committee reported, "apparently without realizing it gave foreign governments a potentially effective veto power over granting of credentials."