The Next Big Thing in Canadian Foreign Policy is Media Development

Written by Rachel Pulfer, Executive Director, Journalists for Human Rights


“Why support Journalists for Human Rights? It’s obvious. When you invest in raising the game for journalists, you are effectively raising the game for everyone else.”


The place: Logali House in Juba, South Sudan. The speaker: Jason Patinkin, the AP correspondent for Juba. This is someone true to the mould of the tough-talking journalist: someone who is routinely, hilariously and insightfully critical of everything. And yet, spending a year in close proximity to a JHR pilot program has turned this professional skeptic into one of JHR’s most clear-headed champions.


When I asked Mr. Patinkin why he was such a supporter of JHR’s, he laughed. “Again, it’s obvious,” he replied. “When it comes to foreign aid, this is the only thing the international community can truly invest in with a clear conscience.”


If you help journalists do their job and do it right, he went on, every other institution in the society is held accountable to do their part. The result is a society whose media helps to catalyse locally relevant solutions to local problems. No need, leastways in theory, for massive investment in expat-led and –financed parallel sectors to deliver essential services – hospitals, schools, roads – that, by rights, the local government should be held accountable to deliver.

Journalists at South Sudan Airport wait for the President of Kenya to land./Photo Credit, Grant McDonald
Journalists at Juba International Airport in South Sudan wait for the President of Kenya, Uhuru Kenyatta, to land./Photo Credit, Grant McDonald

Journalists for Human Rights is Canada’s largest media development organization. Founded by two 24-year-olds in 2002, the organization has since worked across 23 different countries, in the process training over 13,500 journalists.


The way JHR works is radically grass roots. We pair international and local trainers to work side by each with local journalists and media partners in a long-term process of skills development. We work with university partners to develop curriculum that builds case studies of best practice in context, thus enabling local journalists to learn from each other while ensuring long-term sustainability for our programming. And we invest across sectors, seeking out strength where we find it and building it up.


The goal is to create an enabling environment in which powerful human rights journalism can thrive. We have done this time and time again, in places as diverse as Liberia, Northern Canada, the Middle East and now South Sudan. And the results have been extraordinary. A public conversation on the taboo issue of honour killings in Jordan, launched by a JHR-mentored investigation by Remaz Mussa, that led to a change in the law governing rapists. A talk show on a radio station in Constance Lake, Ontario, hosted by Rick Allen, a JHR-mentored announcer, that ensured a tough northern community was properly policed. An education minister fired in Liberia for corruption, courtesy an investigation by Theophilus Seeton – another JHR-trained journalist.


To paraphrase Mr. Patinkin of AP South Sudan: When journalists raise their game, everyone else follows suit.


It’s a concept that’s as clear as it is powerful. And what a privilege it is, to be part of something so essentially intelligent and extraordinarily effective: working to create the conditions in which journalists can thrive, and helping other journalists, in places where media is under siege and rights abuses are all too common, learn to flex their collective muscles in ways that, time after time, result in powerful positive change.


2016 is a watershed year for JHR. Two of our programs- the aforementioned South Sudan initiative and the Indigenous Reporters Program, working on improving coverage of Indigenous issues across Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan – are scaling. Our project in the Middle East has been doing extraordinary, pioneering work on, in particular, ways to put a human face on the Syrian refugee crisis in situ, in arguably the environments most under stress from that disaster. And our project in the DRC faces its greatest challenge yet: covering a nationwide election amid rising insecurity.


The challenge each project represents is huge. And yet, time after time, the extraordinary men and women who deliver JHR’s programming have proved themselves more than up to the task.


As one of my favourite mentors and supporters likes to put it, JHR’s work is very Canadian. It’s about playing a catalyst role to help strengths build on strengths. And we play to our own strengths too. This is a country, after all, that exports top journalists all over the world. (While few wear the flag on their sleeve, expat Canadians hold top jobs at publications from the New York Times to the Boston Globe to the New Yorker — and everything in between.)


In light of this, it’s a touch ironic that Canada is coming late to the media development party. Other countries, ranging from the US to the UK to France to Germany, have seen media development as a critical driver of their foreign engagement for years, and invest accordingly. In Germany and France, the media development agency is actually an arms-length department of the government. In Britain, BBC Media Action – the media development arm of the BBC – is better financed than its namesake broadcaster.


In Canada, we do things a bit differently. (For years, JHR has been competing – and competing successfully – in the international arena against organizations with budgets between 25 and 90 times our size.) However, the fact remains that media development can and should be an essential tool in the Canadian policy toolbox – particularly given the country’s extraordinary wealth of journalistic talent. In 2016, JHR plans to kick off the necessary public conversation to get it there.


This year, JHR will be able to do more than we ever have before, in more diverse environments than ever. We would never have got here without our loyal community of donors, supporters, volunteers and the extraordinary talent that gives its all to ensure our programs’ success. THANK YOU.


And stay tuned – for new pilot programs, for exciting new sponsorship opportunities, for new partnership opportunities, for scholarships, internships, volunteerships and jobs. As we face the high-level challenge of growing and scaling, at what appears to be an exponential rate, we are going to need you all more than ever.


To support JHR’s groundbreaking work around the world click here.

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