There seems a concerted attempt afoot to regulate journalists and, impliedly, bloggers. This will further erode freedom of Speech And Expression given to us by our constitution under Article 19(1)(a).

Bloggers at India Opines, beware: you could soon discover your posts deemed inferior to the articles of journalists not because their content is ordinary and your style of writing shoddy, but because of who you are and your educational background. In case you are a banker, or lawyer, or doctor, or housewife, your online posts could automatically be placed in low in the hierarchy of status the UPA government seems keen on creating for slotting media writings and reports.

This could well be the outcome of the suggestion Information and Broadcasting Minister Manish Tewari mooted at a seminar last week. The dapper and dogged Tewari suggested journalists should pass a common examination, presumably centralized, before they are granted a licence to practice their profession.

Do not think Tewari’s is a case of loud-thinking or venting of frustration because of the media onslaught against the UPA government. There seems a concerted attempt afoot to regulate journalists and, impliedly, bloggers. For instance, Press Council of India Chairman Jutsice (retd) Markandey Katju, about six months ago, appointed a subcommittee to spell out a minimum educational qualification required to become a journalist.

We can assume the education qualification would entail more than securing a BA degree, which most journalists in today’s India anyway posses, and is likely to include training in the craft of journalism from a recognised media institute or college. Again, a minimum educational qualification has no meaning unless it disqualifies those who don’t have it from entering journalism.

The PCI subcommittee’s brief, therefore, would eventually lead to the creation of an authority, needed for vetting the standard of educational institutes offering courses in journalism and verifying the degrees or diplomas of prospective media entrants. Tewari’s proposal threatens, in that sense, to formalize such an authority that would be needed to conduct the envisaged common test as well for granting licence.

Since you are a blogger, you are likely to shrug your shoulder and say: I’m not a journalist, I don’t intend to join a media house, why should I bother about Tewari’s licence proposal? Here is an explanation why you should.

For one, it would create an exclusive group of people entitled to practice journalism, in much the same manner lawyers and doctors are. This presumes online bloggers who are not licensed journalists will have their opinions and reports automatically judged non-journalistic. Or, to put in another way, online bloggers will become the journalistic equivalent of medical quacks, dismissed outright or looked upon with suspicion and doubt.

Obviously, the police is not going to hound and arrest you or debar you from writing your daily posts, for the sheer expansion of the web, as also its popularity, militates against such a precipitous measure. It could also be in violation of Art 19 (1) (a) of the Indian Constitution, which recognises as a fundamental right the right to freedom of speech and expression. In the conduct of their activities, both journalists and bloggers alike enjoy the protection of Article 19 (1) (a).

Under the licensing regime, however, blogging will lose out on respectability. The creation of an exclusive group of people entitled to practice journalism will, willy-nilly, create pressure on the government to define and protect their exclusivity. Won’t journalists otherwise wonder at the need to meet the prescribed qualification and pass a centralized common test for securing the licence until it bestows on them certain privileges? So perhaps, it might become mandatory for every blogger to disclose he or she isn’t a licensed journalist, thus conveying to the reader that his or her post might not pass the rigour of the journalist’s craft.

A licensing regime will define journalism in exceptionally narrow terms, turning away the focus from its conduct to the status of those practicing it. Traditionally, any action is considered a legitimate journalistic endeavour which involves dissemination of information or opinion through a medium to people in public interest. Assume a person who uploads on the internet a video made through his mobile of an incident in which a beat constable thrashes a pedestrian.  Wouldn’t his or her effort constitute journalism? Yes, it does, though you could say his or her journalistic endeavour was accidental, predicated on his or her presence at the spot of action.

But there are bloggers, in India and abroad, who relentlessly pursue a subject of public interest, research and do their legwork, and put out their posts on the internet. In many cases, they are not journalists, in the sense they are not employed in media outlets, and operate solitarily. In 2010, an educational institute took Rashmi Bansal, a blogger, to the Silchar civil court on charges of defamation. She had to remove the article deemed offensive. By contrast, when the same educational institute obtained an injunction from the same court against a Delhi-based magazine to remove an article, the latter managed to have the injunction stayed.

Their contrasting experiences portray the impediments lonely-wolf bloggers have to encounter, largely because they don’t have the financial clout matching that of a media house. A licensing regime in journalism will further compound the problem of bloggers, providing an additional, compelling ground for those wishing to sue them on defamation charges. Won’t the blogger’s defence be rendered a tad weaker in the absence of a licence vouching for his or her journalistic skills? The answer: Yes.

So then, are all bloggers journalists? This was the question United States District Judge Marco A Hernandez answered in a defamation case brought against self-proclaimed investigative blogger, Crystal Cox, in the district court of Oregon. To qualify as a journalist for invoking privileges assured to the profession under the state law, Judge Hernandez ruled a blogger must fulfil the following conditions: she or he must have education in journalism; should have worked for a recognised news outlet; should adhere to journalistic standards of editing, fact-checking etc; should create an independent product rather than do a cut-paste job; keep notes of interviews; stitch an agreement of confidentiality with his/her source; elicit response from those whose reputation and interests the blogger may affect adversely. Cox was deemed to have not fulfilled these conditions and had to fork out $ 2.5 million in damages.

Hernandez’s definition divided journalists. Some thought the judge was right in defining who is a journalist, for it is this status which determines whether the person can invoke what are called the shield laws, in operation in some states in the US. These laws specifically protect journalists from disclosing their sources. But others like technology writer Dan Gillmor were critical of the judgement. As he wrote in the Guardian, “The Oregon blogger’s kind of journalism certainly isn’t my style, but her goal is plainly to inform the public about an issue she believes to be of public interest. Is that journalism? I’d argue it is, even though I certainly don’t argue that she or any other journalist is entitled to libel anyone else.”

Privileges of journalists are not codified in India, nor has there been an attempt to distinguish them from a blogger. Licence to practice journalism could effectively draw a line differentiating the two. It is not inconceivable to imagine the government offering to codify the privileges of journalists in return for them accepting a licensing regime. Such an acceptance, however, will erode the spirit of Art 19 (1) (a) and create an ambience in which the right to freedom of speech will only get imperilled. You right to speech or expression can’t be dependent on who you are and your educational qualifications.

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