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Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland flew to Washington, D.C., this summer to accept a global award from Foreign Policy magazine for being one of the world’s best diplomats.
While there, Freeland made a speech that was as extraordinary as it was essential. The speech called for all those who believe in liberal democracy to fight a rising tide of authoritarian strongmen worldwide. Her weapons of choice? The journalist’s arsenal of facts and truth.
“Facts matter,” the minister, herself a former journalist, argued passionately. “Truth matters. Competency and honesty among elected leaders and in our public service matters.”
The core insight of this speech is so clearly self-evident, it is a damning indicator of our times that these points need to be made at all.
Yet, they do. Facts matter. Truth matters.
Public officials who make decisions based on facts and truth lead to better governance outcomes, stronger transparency and clearer accountability. That builds integrity of leadership and trust in government.
Public trust in institutions, in turn, strengthens democracy. Stronger oversight ensures those institutions’ leaders are, in fact, governing in the interests of the governed rather than in their own self-interest.
How does this relate to international assistance? It is fundamental. To quote development economist Amartya Sen, there has never been a famine in a country with a free press. That’s because a free press requires leaders to make decisions in light of credible information about how those decisions could affect the lives of those who are governed.
If a large number of people in a country are at risk of starvation, journalists sound the alarm. In a state with a free press, action is invariably taken — before the situation or, crucially, its leadership’s perceived ability to manage the situation, reaches a crisis.
Contrast this to an autocracy, where the press is muzzled or suppressed.
Policy-makers make decisions in the dark, absorbing only facts they want to hear. The result: few reliable feedback loops between the governors and the governed, minimal public oversight and muted public outrage that stymies relevant action.
This leads to uninformed governance, irrelevant decisions and bad policy, which, in turn, leads to social unrest and a cycle of ever greater repression.
In the absence of oversight, governance decisions are also considerably less efficient.
A study from the University of Notre Dame tracking the impact of a recent decline in local news coverage on local governance noted a clear correlation between the decline of news coverage and rising government costs.
These facts are why media development matters.
In an era when truth itself is under fire, media development’s capacity to supply truth and facts on a global scale matters more than ever.
WATCH: Representatives from Journalists for Human Rights speak about the organizations’ work around the world, including Syria, South Sudan and a new incubator program in South Africa. (2017)
What is media development? It is work designed to strengthen journalists’ ability to do their jobs.
Journalists are trained to strengthen their coverage, which helps build and enforce a public culture of accountability and transparency. It ensures leaders are held to account, while giving people access to a platform to speak, inform, influence and affect policy.
The outcome is cohorts of skilled local journalists worldwide: people highly motivated to ensure investments in international assistance get where they are supposed to go.
This isn’t just development-speak abstraction. It is harnessing the power of media for good.
Journalists for Human Rights — the organization I run — has helped mentor journalists whose stories have ensured that soldiers in the South Sudanese People’s Liberation Army were held accountable for their use of rape as a weapon of war in the most visible way possible.
Putting a media spotlight on female genital mutilation in Liberia helped convince the president of that country to ban the practice.
JHR-trained journalists in Jordan used data journalism techniques to put the issue of honour killings on the public agenda, which led to the repeal of a law that allowed rapists to marry their victims, thus restoring family honour.
Media development is usually practiced in places of conflict or crisis. But worldwide, there is increasingly a need for media development wherever despots need to be reined in.
Media development further benefits from what is known in development circles as the media multiplier effect. When you work with influential journalists, you also reach their audiences.
A project can target 100 journalists, but their audiences may collectively reach over 80 per cent of the population. Right now, for example, JHR is reaching over six million people in South Sudan — a country of approximately 8 million — on an ongoing basis.
The current moment does not call for just any form of media development. It calls for Canadian leadership of media development. In South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, JHR has achieved major breakthroughs precisely because we are Canadian, working in close partnership with local journalists.
In her speech, Freeland channelled Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, calling on all of us to ensure that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the Earth.
It is a powerful and urgent mission, one that we fail to adopt at our extreme peril. And what more strategic and effective way for Canada to act than through the power of media development?
To support truth, facts and human rights, please go to www.jhr.ca/donate.
This piece was originally published in the Toronto Star.