Address by Minister of Foreign Affairs at Global Conference for Media Freedom

Speech

July 11, 2019 - London, United Kingdom

Check against delivery. This speech has been translated in accordance with the Government of Canada’s official languages policy and edited for posting and distribution in accordance with its communications policy.

Thank you very much, Jeremy [Hunt, United Kingdom’s Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs], for that extremely kind introduction. I do want to thank you, Jeremy, for having the very important idea of hosting this conference.

I think all of us, as Amal [Clooney] was honest enough to admit, faced some skepticism in doing this. But it is incredibly important and I’m so grateful to you for having the idea and for following through, for inviting Canada to work with you, and I do want to thank the magnificent British team of public servants who have done a fantastic job in bringing this to life. You guys are a terrific model of public service.

I do also want to thank Amal for her great comments and her great work. In every newsroom I worked in as a reporter, an adage was that “the better the journalist was, even better the lawyer needed to be.”

This autumn we will celebrate the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. For those of us who lived through that time as I did—my kids can’t believe I’m that old—it was a euphoric moment and one where it was tempting to imagine that liberal democracy was both inevitable and eternal.

That was such a seductive idea but it has proven to be an illusory one.

Instead, 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 his more threatened by the jungle’s resurgence than the free press. The danger is often specific and physical.

Many of you have probably seen on the floor above us, the poignant wall of remembrance that bears the names of the many journalists who have lost their lives in recent years. Let us take a moment to remember them and salute their courage.

The troubling reality, as we have been hearing yesterday and today, 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. I’m sure all the politicians in this room are nodding in hearty agreement. 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. Reminding ourselves and each other of that fundamental reality is why it is so useful for us to come together today. 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.

But 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 the world’s rising authoritarianism is to undermine the very idea of objective facts, of objective truth.

We need to fight back.

As Mariana Katzarova so memorably and movingly said yesterday, quoting her dear friend, the assassinated Russian journalist, Anna Politkovskaya, what matters is the information and not what you think about it. Anna’s tragic death reminds us that Russia is one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists to work today. That, by the way, is not an accident. It’s quite deliberate.

Anna’s wonderful defence of the truth echoed a great line, one of my favourites about journalism, from [Manchester] Guardian editor C.P. Scott. Nearly a century ago, he said “comment is free but facts are sacred.” These are lofty words and important ones.

One of the things Jeremy and I hope to do with this conference is to buttress these essential and important ideas with some specific collective and practical steps.

The first 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.

Today, I am announcing another $10 million annually to promote and protect democracy.

This funding will focus on supporting electoral processes, reinforcing democratic practices by combatting disinformation and strengthening civic engagement. An initial one million dollars will go to the new Global Media Defence Fund housed at UNESCO.

Of course, as Amal has just described, we are launching the independent panel of legal experts to support and advance media freedom worldwide.

Canada is very excited by this work and we are delighted that our own Irwin Cotler, a distinguished Canadian human rights lawyer and former Minister of Justice (and I would say my personal conscience—if he feels we are lagging on the human rights front, Irwin is very quick to phone or email me) will serve on the panel.

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 U.K. and we are honoured to serve as next year’s host and look forward to you being with us in Canada, Jeremy.

Listening to the testimony of the brave and brilliant journalists gathered here, it was easy for me yesterday to be scared or frankly to get depressed, but let’s choose instead to be inspired.

Let’s be inspired by Anas Anas from Ghana who spoke to us yesterday from behind a curtain of beads because he would be in danger if he exposed his face.

Let’s be inspired by Luz Mely Reyes of Venezuela who, together with her colleagues, decided—as she so eloquently put it—not to wait for her own funeral but instead to create some fireflies to help light up the darkness of the Maduro dictatorship. 

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 the open society against the 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 weeded our democratic garden and will we have kept the jungle from growing back.

Thank you very much.

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