Quebec to Regulate the Media?

Over the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009, the media in Quebec experienced an unprecedented upheaval, which resulted in the closure of certain newsrooms, downsizing in others, and lock-outs at some newspapers that had difficulty renewing collective agreements, among other things. The financial problems highlighted the growing problem traditional media face in the new age of communication, when television, the internet and video games rule the day, and free and instantaneous access to information is the norm.

In late 2009, the province’s Culture and Communications Minister, Christine St-Pierre, mandated Dominique Payette (links in French unless otherwise noted), a former CBC journalist and now professor at the Universite de Laval to study strategies for strengthening the province’s media in the face of new communication technologies, such as social media and mobile apps, among others.

Payette presented her final report (in PDF) last January. In it, she made 51 recommendations, including:

  • Creating a law that would regulate who can be called a “journalist” by organizing a professional corporation to control admission; the Quebec Press Council would become a full-fledged regulator
  • Requiring membership by all news organizations in the Quebec Press Council
  • Demanding language testing for all those seeking such accreditation (meaning passing a French language test)
  • Giving “accredited” journalists preference over non-accredited journalists on matters ranging from government information flow to protection of sources
  • Establishing a regime of public subsidies for members of the Quebec Press Council

This month, St. Pierre announced that the government is following up on two of the recommendations. The ministry will hold public hearings in 10 cities from October 6 to November 21, 2011, to collect feedback on regulating the media in Quebec by adopting a professional journalism accreditation and consolidating the Press Council.

The ministry prepared a document to help the public understand what is at stake and assist them in contributing to the debate. This document can be found here.

The worry for the Quebec government, and I am sure others as well, is that new communications technologies, such as blogs and social media, are leading to confusion among the public: who are journalists? And what is journalism?

As a result, the ministry wants to differentiate “professional journalists” from amateur and citizen journalists, sometimes referred to as amateur communicators, such as bloggers.

But do we really need the help?

Some critics of the plan fear that the government’s efforts to organize the media amount to regulation of communication and free speech in Quebec, which could lead to greater censorship.

At the time the report was tabled, Quebec English weekly newspaper The Suburban worried that “A weapon such as this in the hands of a government will give it the power to silence any opposing voice simply by influencing the ‘professional corporation’ it gave birth to to deny ‘accreditation.’”

According to the Montreal Gazette (article no longer available), the Fédération professionnelle des journalists du Québec (FPJQ) supports some of Payette’s recommendations, but it doesn’t want to see restrictions on who can act as a journalist. Other recommendations include strengthening protection for confidential sources and improving journalists’ ability to access government information.

“Journalism remains open to everyone by the right of freedom of the press and expression,” the FPJQ said in a press release.

What do you think? Is the government right to try to prop up the traditional media industry (i.e., newspapers and magazines)? Is this the right way to do it? Will accredited journalists and reporters produce better quality work than others? Is it fair to require journalists to take a language proficiency test?

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Comments

  1. As a result, the ministry wants to differentiate “professional journalists” from amateur and citizen journalists, sometimes referred to as amateur communicators, such as bloggers.

    Nothing better than a good Ministry of Truth to ease the bureaucratic mind, no?

    Do you suppose “1984” wouldn’t mean much to this Ministry? Would “dix-neuf cent quatre-vingts quatre” make a difference?

    Davd