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Press on the Dole: How Canada Pays to Shape the News

Last Saturday the Ottawa Citizen published a feature titled “The story of ‘the Canadian vaccine’ that beat back Ebola”. According to the article, staff reporter Elizabeth Payne’s “research was supported by a travel grant from the International Development Research Centre.” The laudatory story concludes with Guinea’s former health minister thanking Canada “for the great service you have rendered to Guinea” and a man who received the Ebola vaccine showing “reporters a map of Canada that he had carved out of wood and displayed in his living room. ‘Because Canada saved my life.’”

A Crown Corporation that reports to Parliament through the foreign minister, the International Development Research Centre’s board is mostly appointed by the federal government. Unsurprisingly, the government-funded institution broadly aligns its positions with Canada’s international objectives.

IDRC funds various journalism initiatives and development journalism prizes. Canada’s aid agency has also doled out tens of millions of dollars on media initiatives over the years. The now defunct Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) has funded a slew of journalism fellowships that generate aid-related stories, including a Canadian Newspaper Association fellowship to send journalists to Ecuador, Aga Khan Foundation Canada/Canadian Association of Journalists Fellowships for International Development Reporting, Canadian Association of Journalists/Jack Webster Foundation Fellowship. It also offered eight $6,000 fellowships annually for members of the Fédération professionnelle des journalistes du Québec, noted CIDA, “to report to the Canadian public on the realities lived in developing countries benefiting from Canadian public aid.”

Between 2005 and 2008 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. But, a CIDA spokesperson told J-Source, the aid agency “didn’t pay directly for journalists’ salaries” and only “supported media activities that had as goal the promotion of development awareness with the Canadian public.”

One journalist, Kim Brunhuber, received $13, 000 to produce “six television news pieces that highlight the contribution of Canadians to several unique development projects” to be shown on CTV outlets. While failing to say whether Brunhuber’s work appeared on the station, CTV spokesperson Rene Dupuis said another documentary it aired “clearly credited that the program had been produced with the support of the Government of Canada through CIDA.”

During the 2001–14 war in Afghanistan CIDA operated a number of media projects. A number of CIDA-backed NGOs sent journalists to Afghanistan and the aid agency had a contract with Montréal’s Le Devoir to “[remind] readers of the central role that Afghanistan plays in CIDA’s international assistance program.”

The military also paid for journalists to visit Afghanistan. Canadian Press envoy Jonathan Montpetit explained, “my understanding of these junkets is that Ottawa picked up the tab for the flight over as well as costs in-theatre, then basically gave the journos a highlight tour of what Canada was doing in Afghanistan.”

A number of commentators have highlighted the political impact of military sponsored trips, which date back decades. In Turning Around a Supertanker: media-military relations in Canada in the CNN age, Daniel Hurley writes, “correspondents were not likely to ask hard questions of people who were offering them free flights to Germany” to visit Canadian bases there. In his diary of the mid-1990s Somalia Commission of Inquiry, Peter Desbarats made a similar observation. “Some journalists, truly ignorant of military affairs, were happy to trade junkets overseas for glowing reports about Canada’s gallant peacekeepers.”

The various arms of Canadian foreign policy fund media initiatives they expect will portray their operations sympathetically. It’s one reason why Canadians overwhelmingly believe this country is a benevolent international actor even though Ottawa long advanced corporate interests and sided with the British and US empires.

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Yves Engler’s latest book is ‪Canada in Africa: 300 years of Aid and Exploitation.

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