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FORUM: Defending the free press to preserve democracy (Sept. 2019)

October 8th, 2019 · No Comments

Concrete measure protects truth, complexity, and journalists

By Chrystia Freeland

This autumn we will celebrate the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Those of us who lived through that time, as I did, remember it as a euphoric moment. It was hard to imagine that liberal democracy was anything less than both inevitable and eternal. 

A free and independent media in all of its disputatious, cantankerous glory is one of the cornerstones of liberal democracy. 

 That was such a seductive idea, but it has proven to be an illusory one. It is clear today that liberal democracy and the rules-based international order are under greater threat than at any time since the Second World War. 

As Robert Kagan argues in his recent book The Jungle Grows Back, “If the liberal order is like a garden, artificial and forever threatened by the forces of nature, preserving it requires a persistent unending struggle against the vines and weeds that are constantly working to undermine it from within and overwhelm it from without. Today there are signs all around us that the jungle is growing back.” 

I agree with that so profoundly. 

 There is no part of our liberal democratic garden that is more threatened by the jungle’s resurgence than the free press. The danger is often specific and physical. The troubling reality is that journalists and other members of the media are increasingly the target of abuse and attack. 

This must stop. 

Journalists must be able to do their work safely and without fear of reprisal. 

I’d like to pause and address the elephant in the room, the seeming paradox of elected politicians coming together to support a free press. We politicians may seem to be surprising champions for the media and that’s because of the inherent structural conflict between the press and the government. 

 The job of journalists, after all, is to hold our feet to the fire—and as someone who is regularly on the receiving end of that treatment I can assure you it is not a very pleasant experience. But it would be a terrible mistake for any politician, smarting perhaps from that discomfort, to conclude that journalists are the enemy; quite the contrary.  

A free and independent media in all of its disputatious, cantankerous glory is one of the cornerstones of liberal democracy. The truth, to be sure, is that it is harder to be a politician, to be a government, in a country with a free and independent media. That’s the point. 

By holding us—their governments—accountable, journalists make us better than we would otherwise be. Facts matter. Truth matters. Competence and honesty among elected leaders and in our public services matter. These assertions may seem so obvious as to be trite but the objective of authoritarianism is to undermine the very idea of fact, of truth. We need to fight back, with specific collective and practical steps. 

The first step we have already taken is the Global Pledge for Media Freedom. We must seek accountability for crimes against journalists. That is why Canada has used sanctions as a tool to address abuses of media freedom. Following the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi, Canada imposed sanctions on 17 people. As an extension of the pledge, we are also launching a Media Freedom Coalition that will connect governments with civil society organizations and members of the press to save journalists and media workers at risk. 

This coalition and the Media Freedom contact group are cousins to the rapid response mechanism launched during Canada’s G7 presidency last year to address malign disinformation. 

On World Press Freedom Day this year, Canada announced $12 million for the organization Journalists for Human Rights. On July 11th, at the Global Conference for Media Freedom in London, I announced another $10 million annually to promote and protect democracy. 

This funding will focus on supporting electoral processes, reinforcing democratic practices by combating disinformation, and strengthening civic engagement. An initial one million dollars will go to the new Global Media Defence Fund housed at UNESCO, including an independent panel of legal experts to support and advance media freedom worldwide.  

I outline these actions, not as an exhaustive list, but as examples of some first concrete steps we can take together. 

Canada has been delighted to co-host this year’s Media Freedom Conference with the UK and we are honoured to serve as next year’s host. 

We all need to defend our independent press—even, and perhaps especially, when it criticizes us—as a central institution of democracy. We need to fight for an open society against a closed one. We need to fight for the complexity of democratic truth rather than the beguiling simplicity of authoritarian rhetoric. Then and only then will we have tended our democratic garden, preventing it from being swallowed by the persistent weeds that seek to undermine it. 

Chrystia Freeland is member of parliament for University—Rosedale and serves as Canada’s Minister of External Affairs.

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