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How Global Affairs shapes media coverage of Canada's international relations

Image: US Air Force

Few are aware that Canada's aid agency has spent tens of millions of dollars on media projects designed in part to draw journalists into its orbit and shape perceptions of Ottawa's international policies.

For example, "Find out How Canada is Back!" was the title of Journalists for Human Rights' (JHR) Night for Rights fundraiser at the start of October. The keynote speaker at the Toronto Hilton was Minister of International Development Marie-Claude Bibeau.

The minister likely did not discuss her government's arms sales to Saudi Arabia, backing for brutal mining companies, NATO deploymentsantagonism towards Palestinian rights, efforts to topple the Venezuelan government, promotion of military spending, etc. Rather than reflect the thrust of this country's foreign policy the "Canada is Back" theme is a sop to a government that's provided JHR with millions of dollars.

As part of JHR's "partnership" with "the Government of Canada and our Embassies abroad," it has drawn powerful media workers to a worldview aligned with Canadian foreign policy. JHR's list of international trainers includes CTV news host Lisa LaFlamme, former Toronto Star editor Michael Cooke and former Globe and Mail editor John Stackhouse. It's also run foreign affairs-focused news partnerships with CTV and Global News while the Toronto Star and CBC have sponsored its events. 

In addition to the millions of dollars put up for JHR's international media initiatives, Canada's aid agency has doled out tens of millions of dollars on other media projects broadly aligned with its "development" outlook. Between 2005 and 2008, the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) spent at least $47.5 million on the "promotion of development awareness." According to a 2013 J-Source investigation titled "Some journalists and news organizations took government funding to produce work: Is that a problem?" more than $3.5 million went to articles, photos, film and radio reports about CIDA projects. Much of the government-funded reporting appeared in major media outlets.

During the war in Afghanistan, CIDA operated a number of media projects and had a contract with Montréal's Le Devoir to "[remind] readers of the central role that Afghanistan plays in CIDA's international assistance program." In another highly politicized context, CIDA put up $2 million for a "Media and Democratic Development in Haiti" project overseen by Montréal-based Réseau Liberté (RL) and Alternatives. As part of the mid-2000s project, RL supported media outlets that were part of L'Association Nationale des Médias Haïtiens (ANMH), which officially joined the Group of 184 that campaigned to oust elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was overthrown by the U.S., France and Canada in 2004.

RL sent Canadian (mostly Québec) journalists to "train" their Haitian reporters for a month. In an article titled "Embedding CBC Reporters in Haiti's Elitist Media" Richard Sanders writes:

"If RL's Canadian journalists did not already harbour anti-Aristide sentiments before their intensive 'coaching' experiences, they would certainly risk absorbing such political predilections after being submerged in the propaganda campaigns of Haiti's elite media. ... RL journalists would likely return home from Haiti armed with newly implanted political biases that could then be spread liberally among their colleagues in the media and hence to the broader Canadian public."

A number of leading Quebec reporters interned with ANMH media outlets. Assistant program director for Radio Canada news, Guy Filion, was one of them. Even though ANMH outlets barred Haiti's elected president from its airwaves in the lead-up to the coup, Filion described those who "formed the ANMH" as "pro-Haitian and they are pro neutral journalistic people ... as much as it can be said in this country." Filion also praised the media's coverage of the 2006 election in which Haiti's most popular political party, Aristide's Lavalas, was excluded. 

A smaller part of CIDA's "Media and Democratic development in Haiti" project went to Alternatives. The Montréal-based NGO created a "Media in Haiti" website and paid for online Haitian media outlet AlterPresse, which aggressively opposed Lavalas. During the 2007 Quebec Social Forum AlterPresse editor Rene Colbert told me there was no coup in 2004, since Aristide was never elected (not even the George W. Bush administration made this absurd claim).

What the supposedly left-wing Journal d'Alternatives -- inserted monthly in Le Devoir with funding from CIDA -- published about Haiti was shocking. In June 2005, the individual in charge of its Haiti portfolio wrote an article that demonized the residents of impoverished neighbourhoods targeted for repression by the installed government. In particular, François L'Écuyer denounced community activists Samba Boukman and Ronald St. Jean, who I'd met, as "notorious criminals." This was exceedingly dangerous in an environment where the victims of police operations were routinely labelled "bandits" and "criminals" after they were killed.

Seven months earlier L'Ecuyer published a front-page article headlined "The Militarization of Peace in Haiti," claiming "Chimères, gangs loyal to and armed by President Aristide," launched "Operation Baghdad" to destabilize the country. Echoing the propaganda disseminated by the Bush administration, it claimed the exiled president was profiting politically from violence. Although Alternatives printed numerous articles about Haiti during this period, their reporting omitted any mention of political prisoners, violent repression of Lavalas activists, or basic facts about the coup.

Why does Canada's aid agency spend millions of dollars on journalism projects designed to draw journalists into Global Affairs' orbit and shape perception of Ottawa's policies abroad? Is that really "aid"?

Perhaps the title of the cabinet member in charge should be changed to Minister of International Development and Propaganda.

Image: US Air Force

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