Opinion: As press freedom declines around the world, CBC/Radio-Canada should take on a role as an international broadcaster
Jean-Frédéric Légaré-Tremblay is a Fellow and Senior Advisor, Communications and Partnerships, at the Center d’études internationales de Montréal.
Canada’s role in the world is rather discreet these days. This manifested itself during the federal election campaign when candidates’ proposals on foreign policy were sorely lacking, as were those on culture and communications. By bringing these two problems together, we can envisage a solution: to create a global service at CBC/Radio-Canada.
This proposal goes beyond swelling the ranks of the current cohort of foreign correspondents whose audience is above all Canadian. Instead, it aims to deploy an extensive network of journalists and broadcasting capabilities around the world to reach international audiences in a host of languages, akin to BBC World Service and France 24.
This proposal is important given the global media context of the past decade. Press freedom is in decline around the world, a trend that matches the decline of democracy. From intimidation to banishment, authoritarian governments are increasingly cracking down on independent media.
There is a second challenge: many of these governments are making sustained efforts to occupy the news ground outside their borders with an approach that cares little about media independence and conveys deep skepticism about western liberal democratic narratives – while defending those of their country. And some of them are very good at doing it.
This is the case of the Russian channels RT and Sputnik, whose content does not seem to be aimed so much at enhancing Russia’s global reputation as at relativizing or even denigrating that of Western countries. The success is palpable: the two channels are the second and third most consulted international public media on the internet, behind the BBC. China, for its part, decided 12 years ago to invest billions of dollars to, in Xi Jinping’s words, “tell China’s story well” to the world in line with the Communist Party of China. . China Global Television Network broadcasts in six languages and China Radio International in no less than 65 languages.
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Even Iran has jumped on the bandwagon. With a budget of around US$1 billion, the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting and its branches in 20 countries control 40 television and radio stations broadcasting in 30 languages. Its aim is to improve Tehran’s image, counter “Western propaganda against Iran” and cultivate its reputation as an anti-imperialist power.
Among liberal democracies, the United Kingdom has taken note of this new global media situation. In 2016, London made a major reinvestment in the BBC World Service by expanding its staff and launching services in 11 additional languages, for a total of 40. In many places there is no more freedom of expression, but less,” said Fran Unsworth, then director of the BBC World Service.
Ottawa also actively supports the cause of media freedom. In 2019, Canada, along with the United Kingdom, founded the Media Freedom Coalition, a group of countries dedicated to promoting and supporting press freedom, as well as the safety of media professionals. It is also one of the 11 founding countries of the Partnership for Information and Democracy, which defined the same year “principles and objectives to promote access to reliable information”.
Canada could go a step further. CBC/Radio-Canada has all the assets to play a major international role: heir to one of the strongest traditions of press freedom in the world, according to Reporters Without Borders, has high professional and ethical standards, is experienced in international journalism and is already available in two international languages. In doing so, it could offer free and independent information to people who have less and less access to it, while presenting itself as a legitimate alternative to the propaganda materials of authoritarian governments.
Canadians would also benefit from such a service, which would inform them better than ever about the world. And by broadcasting Canadian news on a large network, the same service would better inform foreign audiences about Canada.
Radio Canada International, in operation since 1945, is already available in seven languages. But with its tiny team of nine employees based in Montreal, RCI produces mostly translated content from CBC/Radio-Canada websites. This is a far cry from a truly international broadcast service with a multitude of reporters based on almost every continent.
Among liberal democracies, Canada is one of the lowest in terms of investment in its public broadcasters: $33 per capita. The average is $88. This proposal is ambitious, but it is worth the investment.
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