Canada must do more to sup­port jour­nal­ists in the Mid­dle East

The Globe and Mail (Ottawa/Quebec Edition) - - OPINION - JU­LIAN SHER

The jour­nal­ist’s mur­der ex­posed the dan­ger of re­port­ing in the Mid­dle East. And Canada can do much more to re­duce that threat

In­ves­tiga­tive writer from Mon­treal who trains jour­nal­ists in the Mid­dle East and around the world

For Lina Chawaf, the news of the lat­est killings of her col­leagues came just last week. They were two lo­cal jour­nal­ists in a small town in­side Syria, mur­dered by Is­lamist ex­trem­ists be­cause they dared to play mu­sic and air the voices of women on their ra­dio sta­tion.

“They died for what they be­lieved in,” says Ms. Chawaf, the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Ra­dio Rox­anna, an in­de­pen­dent net­work that broad­casts on­line into Syria. “This is the kind of news we get ev­ery week, we live un­der this trauma. I feel like I can’t cry any more.”

Ms. Chawaf fled to Canada dur­ing the Syr­ian war and now spends most of her time work­ing on the Syr­ian border in Turkey. She is one of more than 400 jour­nal­ists from 18 coun­tries at an an­nual con­fer­ence I at­tended last week­end near the Dead Sea in Jor­dan, or­ga­nized by the Arab Re­porters for In­ves­tiga­tive Jour­nal­ism (ARIJ).

The spirit of jour­nal­ist Ja­mal Khashoggi – mur­dered on Oct. 2 by thugs con­nected to the rul­ing regime in Saudi Ara­bia – pre­vailed over the event. It be­gan with a minute of si­lence for Mr. Khashoggi and other jour­nal­ists killed re­cently, as their pic­tures filled a large wall.

“What hap­pened to Khashoggi is the cul­mi­na­tion for us, the ug- li­est slap in our face,” Rana Sab­bagh, the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of ARIJ, told me. “It was never so bad. I have been work­ing for 35 years. Now, noth­ing is clear. You are con­stantly be­ing asked to show your al­le­giance: In ev­ery coun­try, you are ei­ther with the regime, or against it. You can’t be neu­tral.”

Be­fore Mr. Khashoggi be­came a head­line, if not a house­hold name, most of us prob­a­bly never gave much thought to the fate of re­porters in the Mid­dle East.

What would be the av­er­age Westerner’s most pes­simistic es­ti­mate for the num­ber of jour­nal­ists killed in the re­gion for sim­ply do­ing their job in the past 35 years: Twenty? Fifty? One hun­dred?

The ac­tual num­ber is 495, ac­cord­ing to the UNESCO Ob­ser­va­tory of Killed Jour­nal­ists.

And of course, those are just the killings. Just as per­ni­cious to free­dom are the jail­ings, the beat­ings, the in­tim­i­da­tion, the fir­ings and, ul­ti­mately, the self-cen­sor­ship as a sur­vival strat­egy. The re­pres­sion has got­ten much worse since the fail­ure of the Arab Spring to bring re­form to the re­gion.

In a global rank­ing of me­dia free­doms in 180 coun­tries car­ried out by Re­porters With­out Bor­ders, half of the worst 20 coun­tries in the world come from the Mid­dle East and North Africa.

As Mr. Khashoggi him­self pointed out in his heart­break­ingly pre­scient fi­nal col­umn for The Wash­ing­ton Post, “the Arab world is fac­ing its own ver­sion of an Iron Cur­tain.”

In the face of such an on­slaught, what can and should West­ern democ­ra­cies such as Canada do?

If words do count – and in coun­ter­ing the Arab regimes’ war on words, they do – we need to speak up much more loudly and con­sis­tently.

This past Au­gust, well be­fore the mon­stros­ity of the Khashoggi mur­der ex­posed the Saudi regime’s bru­tal track record to the world, For­eign Af­fairs Minister Chrys­tia Free­land got into a nasty pub­lic spat with the Saudi gov­ern­ment. To her credit, she had dared to speak out about jailed Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, whose sis­ter is a Cana­dian cit­i­zen.

But that bold pub­lic move was so strik­ing be­cause it was so ex­cep­tional.

“One of the things Canada does ex­cep­tion­ally well is jour­nal­ism and one of the op­por­tu­ni­ties for the Trudeau gov­ern­ment is to put jour­nal­ism back on the world stage,” says Rachel Pulfer, the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Jour­nal­ists for Hu­man Rights (JHR), which trains and men­tors re­porters around the world.

In to­day’s en­vi­ron­ment, al­lo­cat­ing more of our for­eign-aid money to build­ing a me­dia in­fra­struc­ture can be just as cru­cial as the usual sys­tems of roads, sew­ers or hospi­tals. A free me­dia is cen­tral to strength­en­ing de­moc- racy, root­ing out cor­rup­tion and, yes, sav­ing lives. But while Minister of In­ter­na­tional De­vel­op­ment Marie-Claude Bibeau, whose depart­ment doles out money to such or­ga­ni­za­tions, has said the right things about fos­ter­ing me­dia free­doms abroad, the re­sults have been dis­ap­point­ing.

In a re­quest for an ac­count­ing of all Cana­dian spend­ing on pro­grams di­rectly tied to pro­mot­ing me­dia free­doms in the Mid­dle East in re­cent years, Global Af­fairs Canada pro­duced a list of 21 projects in six coun­tries to­talling just less than $2-mil­lion for the past six years. Those pro­grams ranged from en­sur­ing the se­cu­rity of fe­male jour­nal­ists in Iraq to sup­port­ing hu­man rights re­port­ing in Syria.

No doubt ev­ery one of those dol­lars is help­ing, but it’s a piti­ful trickle. By one es­ti­mate, just the three Nordic coun­tries of Den­mark, Swe­den and Nor­way – all smaller than Canada – give more than $60-mil­lion ev­ery year to in­ter­na­tional me­dia as­sis­tance, much of it in the Mid­dle East.

Canada’s share is all the more dis­grace­ful when you com­pare our me­dia aid dol­lars with the bil­lions in busi­ness we do in that re­gion – in­clud­ing lu­cra­tive arms sales. Ac­cord­ing to Global Af­fairs’ lat­est an­nual re­port on mil­i­tary ex­ports, the Mid­dle East and Africa ac­counted for just more than half of Canada’s $1-bil­lion in global arms sales in 2017. And that will only keep mount­ing be­cause of our $15-bil­lion arms deal with the Saudis.

“Build­ing up civil so­ci­ety through jour­nal­ism is very im­por­tant,” says Tom Hen­hef­fer, vice-pres­i­dent of the Cana­dian Jour­nal­ists for Free Ex­pres­sion. “But you are com­par­ing a drop in the bucket to an en­tire ocean. The scale of our sup­port for these coun­tries that are com­mit­ting atroc­i­ties ver­sus the scale of sup­port for or­ga­ni­za­tions that are fight­ing that is laugh­able. So no, we’re not do­ing nearly enough.”

ARIJ ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor Ms. Sab­bagh echoes that view. “Ev­ery­thing is now up for sale. The West­ern coun­tries are look­ing at their in­ter­ests and not the val­ues they sub­scribe to,” she says. “I think we have a global lead­er­ship cri­sis, not just an Arab lead­er­ship cri­sis.”

Still, de­spite re­pres­sion at home and oc­ca­sion­ally tepid sup­port abroad, Arab jour­nal­ists sol­dier on. The in­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ism con­fer­ence in Jor­dan ends with a fes­tive gala of fine food and danc­ing as they cel­e­brate the awards for the best re­port­ing this past year, which ex­posed ev­ery­thing from coal pol­lu­tion in Egypt and the or­gan trade in Libya to the fate of the chil­dren of ISIS fighters in Iraq.

I asked As­sad Al-Zaz­za­lee why he keeps risk­ing his life; the re­porter for a Bagh­dad TV sta­tion has al­ready been the tar­get of two as­sas­si­na­tion at­tempts in his young ca­reer af­ter he ex­posed gov­ern­ment cor­rup­tion in school fund­ing. He laughs softly, not­ing that he keeps one of the bul­lets that missed him as a re­minder.

“It’s my job,” he says. “I took an oath to tell the truth. Things have to change.”

“They want us to shut up,” says Ms. Chawaf, who will head back soon to the Syr­ian border to con­tinue her un­der­ground ra­dio broad­casts. “But if we are silent, we’d be cheat­ing our col­leagues who died for their be­liefs.”

In to­day’s en­vi­ron­ment, al­lo­cat­ing more of our for­eign-aid money to build­ing a me­dia in­fra­struc­ture can be just as cru­cial as the usual sys­tems of roads, sew­ers or hospi­tals.


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