Jean-Frédéric Légaré-Tremblay is fellow and senior advisor, communications and partnerships, at the Montreal Centre for International Studies.
Canada’s role in the world is rather discreet nowadays. This was made clear during the federal election campaign when the candidates’ proposals on foreign policy were thoroughly lacking, just like those for culture and communications. Putting these two problems together, we can consider one solution: create a world service at CBC/Radio-Canada.
This proposal goes beyond growing the ranks of the current cohort of foreign correspondents whose audience is first and foremost Canadian. Instead, it aims to deploy an extensive network of journalists and broadcasting capability across the world to reach an international audience in a multitude of languages, in the manner of the BBC World Service and France 24.
This proposal is important given the global media context over the past decade. Press freedom is declining worldwide, a trend that corresponds with the decline of democracy. From intimidation to banishment, authoritarian governments are increasingly tightening the screws on independent media.
There is a second challenge: Many of these governments are making sustained efforts to occupy the information terrain outside their borders with an approach that has scant regard for media independence and conveys a deep skepticism about Western liberal democratic narratives – while defending those of their country. And some of them are very successful in doing so.
This is the case of the Russian channels RT and Sputnik, whose content does not appear so much to be about enhancing Russia’s global reputation as relativizing, even denigrating, that of Western countries. 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 the words of Xi Jinping, “tell China’s story well” to the world in accordance with the Chinese Communist Party line. China Global Television Network broadcasts in six languages, and China Radio International in no less than 65 languages.
Even Iran has jumped on the bandwagon. With a budget of about US$1-billion, the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting and its branches in 20 countries control 40 TV and radio channels broadcasting in 30 languages. Its objective 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. “As an independent broadcaster, we remain as relevant as ever in the 21st century, when in many places there is not more free expression, but less,” said then BBC World Service’s director Fran Unsworth.
Ottawa also actively supports the cause of media freedom. In 2019, Canada, with the U.K., 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 Information and Democracy Partnership, which in the same year laid down “principles and objectives to promote access to reliable information.”
Canada could go one step further. CBC/Radio-Canada has all the assets to play a major international role: heir to a tradition of press freedom that is among the strongest 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. By doing so, it could offer free and independent information to people who have less and less access to it, while also presenting itself as a legitimate alternative to the propaganda outlets of authoritarian governments.
Canadians would also benefit from such a service, which would inform them better than ever about the world. And in broadcasting Canadian news through a far-reaching network, the same service would better inform foreign audiences about Canada.
Radio Canada International, which has operated since 1945, is already available in seven languages. But with its minuscule team of nine employees based in Montreal, RCI produces content that is mostly translated from CBC/Radio-Canada’s websites. This is a far cry from a true international service broadcasting with a host of reporters based in nearly every continent.
Among liberal democracies, Canada is one of the stingiest when it comes to investing in its public broadcasters: $33 per capita. The average is $88. This proposal is ambitious, but it’s worth an investment.
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