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opinion

Rachel Pulfer

The "sand revolution" gathers force, a harmattan of people power. Canada's reaction has been to send a warship and half a dozen CF-18s to Libya. Meantime, the top story in Canadian aid has been a hand-wringing debate over who misled whom over a decision not to take action on a file.

Once the dust from our federal election clears, the leadership vacuum in critical countries such as Egypt and Tunisia offers golden opportunities for Canada to help those countries craft a clearer - and smarter - path toward genuine liberal democracy, while remaking the Canadian International Development Agency as a champion of innovative leadership.

It's not right to sit by and do nothing while a critical nation in a politically volatile region lurches toward self-destruction. The Harper government was correct to engage on Libya. Yet, fixing to mix it up with Moammar Gadhafi embroils Canada in a conflict that's likely to be long, bloody and expensive in all senses of the word.

In countries where there's a real chance for hope to win out over fear - places such as Egypt and Tunisia - our government should take a closer look at what happens to state-controlled media when it's no longer state-controlled, and consider deploying a cheaper, smarter and much more effective Canadian asset: top quality Canadian journalists, whose experiences providing intelligent, balanced and fair coverage of elections, wars and other conflicts could help restructure state and social media along independent lines.

The stereotypical image of the scrappy independent journalist doesn't immediately spring to mind when trying to envision how best to strengthen democracy in a newly liberated Middle East. But consider: It's impossible to have free or functional elections without reliable sources of non-partisan information about candidates' platforms, motivations and goals. That's why the media are colloquially known as the fourth pillar of a functioning democracy, alongside the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government.

Yet, postrevolutionary Egypt and Tunisia are trying to navigate democracy with an electorate whose media have, historically, been either brutally repressed or are slavishly pro-government. In Egypt, state broadcasters resigned their posts en masse, and journalists flocked to moderate outlets such as Al-Masry Al-Youm. These trends imply a brighter future. But as Said Henry, contributor to the Middle East Media Guide for 2011, notes, state influence and the flourishing of an ultra-partisan press also persist.

In such a fluid media environment, it's difficult for a confused and disoriented electorate to know where to go for information. An intelligently designed Canadian aid initiative emphasizing media development strategies such as on-the-job mentoring and skills exchange with international journalism organizations could help Egyptian journalists craft more objective and reliable narratives about the goals, motivations and capacities of those who hope to govern. The aim would be to build a culture of independent political journalism, one that prioritizes facts- and issues-driven debates over hyperpartisanship and hyperbole.

What this means in practice is programs to send seasoned Canadian journalists to work side by side with their Egyptian counterparts. By building a culture of reporting that emphasizes the fundamentals of balanced, fair election coverage, such an initiative would promote stories that help Egyptians make clear connections between the social and economic ills and human-rights issues they face at the community level, and the kinds of issues and platforms their leaders are proposing at the national level.

The end goal: a responsible and independent media sector that plays its rightful role, refereeing key issues between state and society through a potentially destabilizing leadership vacuum. Canada, meanwhile, gets to show innovative leadership on the world stage - while not paying a disproportionate price in blood and money.

Rachel Pulfer is a freelance journalist who works as director of international programs with Journalists for Human Rights, a development organization based in Toronto.