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No nanny for the news

The news media do not need a nanny. This view has been forcefully sounded on both sides of the world this week, and we couldn't agree more. It was in Belgrade that the epithet "international nanny" was flung at UNESCO for persistent attempts within it to provide "protection" for journalists. Sounds nice, but the prospect looms of screening out reporters by entitling governments to determine which ones warrant protection, perhaps through some kind of licensing system.

It was in San Diego that such concerns were echoed at the general assembly of the Inter-American Press Association. Speakers warned of various entering wedges toward increased government control in the debate on the media at the Belgrade conference of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization).

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This whole matter is not as esoteric as it may sound in a world where no more than a quarter of some 160 nations subscribe to freedom of the press as understood in the West. To be sure, whatever UNESCO finally comes up with will not be binding on the participants. But its resolutions and programs are given an international sanction. They can influence -- or provide justification for -- the steps taken by individual states. In the case of the news media, it becomes important to stress the positive elements in the UNESCO proposals for international communications and to weed out the negative ones.

At stake is the freedom of reporters and news agencies not only within their own countries but in covering and disseminating the news elsewhere. The threat is a shrinking of the public's access to genuine news in the name of increasing it. The promise is an unlocking of the minds and resources of both the industrial and nonindustrialized worlds through improved newsgathering everywhere.

This is why support must be given to recommendations to upgrade publishing and electronic media facilities in third-world countries; to train third-world reporters; to ensure reportorial access to official and unofficial sources of information; to eliminate censorship. The third world's legitimate protests that the news about it should include the good as well as the bad ought to serve a consciousness-raising function for editors and news agencies -- though without encroachments on freedom, which is the best safeguard for all.

At the same time there must be resistance to the "nanny" trend as indicated in a budgetary proposal related to "protection" for journalists. They, like everyone else, should have the full protection of the law -- against terrorism, for example, which has been increasing against journalists. But proposals for special status to protect journalists were eliminated from the report on international communications which is the centerpiece of discussion at Belgrade. This is an example of how the report was improved by wise removal of various loopholes for government control. The line must be held against such invitations to limit what the public reads, hears, and sees at a time when information has become a preeminent commodity.

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