By: Julian Sher*
The globe and mail– 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 ugliest 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 democracy, 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 to 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.”
Julian Sher is an investigative writer from Montreal who trains journalists in the Middle East and around the world.