This was originally delivered as a speech by JHR’s Executive Director, Rachel Pulfer at The Walrus Leadership Dinner on Fact-Based News on February 28, 2019
My name is Rachel Pulfer and I’m the executive director of Journalists for Human Rights.
Journalists for Human Rights trains journalists worldwide to cover human rights issues.
Last October, for example, we worked with a network of five media partners in Syria on coordinated coverage to point out what was happening in al-Rukban, a refugee camp besieged by government forces.
Kids were dying.
Less than 24 hours after the coverage broke, Bashar al Assad called his troops off and opened a humanitarian corridor to that camp.
Turns out the world’s worst despot, the guy who gasses his own people on a regular basis, is sensitive to local media pressure.
So I’m here to talk about the power of journalism— for public good.
It can sometimes be hard to see this when you are here in Canada, reporting on, say, the difference between the short- and long-form census.
For some of those refugees in al-Rukban camp, those stories breaking in Syria last October meant the difference between life or death.
Take a trip to the other end of the Human Development Index and you start to see pretty damn quick what a society is like in the absence of oversight.
So tonight is about celebrating journalists for the vitally important public role they play.
It’s also about all of us, in this room, and what we can do to create change for the better –through fact-based journalism.
Thank you for coming out to lend your brains and talents to this discussion.
To paraphrase the brilliant Maria Ressa of Rappler, whom I had the privilege of meeting earlier this year, what we face is nothing less than a fight for facts and truth.
And it’s playing out in our minds, prompted by organized troll attacks on social media.
Recall last month’s Twitter showdown – the photo and video about the “confrontation” between a MAGA-hat-wearing boy with a smirk on his face and a Native elder, Nathan Phillips.
Recall how it went from an anecdotal incident, one that wouldn’t have seen the light of day in a local newscast, to a continent-wide war on social.
We all took sides.
Yet it came to light that the account retweeting the incendiary video and photograph, supposedly a teacher in California, was actually a troll in Brazil.
We were being played.
And we fell for it.
At a time where truth and fact blend with deliberately divisive content on social media, it can be hard to tell what’s an attack. And what is not.
But make no mistake. We are being played every day on social, by actors whose deliberate intent is to have us at each other’s throats.
What we’re seeing is the 21st century equivalent of an armed coup.
Back in the 20th century, the first thing those attempting to take power did was take over the airwaves.
Now, they take over our minds, by taking over social media.
This will go on until we start to see it, call it out and fight it.
Which we will, because we must.
How can we ensure we are informed by and governed by facts and truth?
We have to change our habits.
And it starts with all of us.
The discussion on how to help media in Canada recently devolved into farce.
That is because it has been discussed largely as an industry problem, not a public problem.
Legacy media are pitched against innovators. Journalists against policymakers. Everyone is against social media platforms. All are squabbling over a “media bailout.”
But the reality is that this is actually an opportunity for all of us to get involved — in solving this problem.
Ask not, in other words, what government money can do for you.
Ask what you can do for your democracy.
And it starts with habits.
Habit number 1 is pretty easy.
Journalists need to start calling out these social media attacks.
Just like Maria Ressa of Rappler.
The rest of us need to support them properly to do this work — by paying for it.
In particular, what Maria Ressa’s work has shown, is that proper journalistic investigations can show the level and volume of disinformation. She tracked 90 hate messages an hour from dedicated accounts in Russia and China. Journalists can investigate and expose who is behind the attacks.
A smart man once said that the only thing standing between a lying politician and you is an honest journalist.
Today, as JHR has seen in some of our country programs, the only thing standing between us and a corrupted election are honest journalists.
So, let’s support good journalism— and pay for it.
Journalists’ jobs depend on it.
Our democracy depends on it.
We are lucky here in Canada to have so many great journalists.
Many of them — Jessica Johnson, David Skok, Amanda Lang — are in this room.
Many of them, such as Lisa LaFlamme, Michael Cooke and Janice Neil, I have had the great privilege of sending overseas with Journalists for Human Rights to train journalists at the other end of the Human Development Index.
Sending Global’s Leslie Young to Jordan in 2014 helped change legislation in that country to better protect women from honour killing.
Sending CBC’s Laura Bain to South Sudan in 2017 has helped ensure that in the past two years, no journalists have died in South Sudan in the line of duty – in a country where the death rates for journalists were on a par with Afghanistan’s only four years ago.
The outcomes of sending Canadian journalists to do human rights journalism training overseas are nothing short of spectacular.
So now let’s do some of that spectacular work here at home.
But here’s another bad habit. And this one might be harder to change.
We need to change how we use social media.
We need to think like journalists when on social.
We need to consider our sources.
Check our biases.
And stop sharing, in anger, posts that are calculated to divide.
So that one is on all of us.
What about the social media platforms ?
Their business model is predicated on not being publishers. On not being journalists.
And yet it is in their interests too, to stop the abusers from abusing their platforms and distorting democracy.
They want to do the right thing. They are trying to do the right thing. Eventually, they will do the right thing.
… or they will be regulated to do the right thing. As is already aggressively happening in Europe.
On that point of regulation – well, it’s on the policymakers. I’m looking at you, Minister Gould.
Policymakers need to show leadership, define and help us all fight this issue.
Luckily, I think we have that calibre of leadership here in Canada.
Leadership from policymakers.
Leadership from journalists.
Leadership from social media platforms.
And leadership from all of you.
So I’m keen to hear more from you about what we all can do, right here, right now, to help solve this problem.
To conclude, I want to stress again.
The implosion of quality media and the rise of misinformation on social media is not an industry problem.
It’s a public problem.
It’s our problem.
But we have the opportunity, right here, right now, to work together to solve it. Today. Right here. Right now.
Canada need not go the way of Bolsonaro in Brazil. Or Duterte in the Philippines. Or Trump in America.
We can change that playbook.
We can lead.
But that’s not going to happen, unless we’re all in.
So I challenge you all to ask yourselves: how can we do this ?
What can I do, what role can I play, to strengthen my democracy ?