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Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, left, moderates a panel discussion commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in Ottawa, on Dec. 12, 2018.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland is calling for the protection of reporters as a part an effort to strengthen democracy around the world, one day after Time magazine named a group of journalists, including slain Saudi columnist Jamal Khashoggi, its “Person of the Year.”

Ms. Freeland, a former journalist, said a free media is critical to holding politicians to account. The minister made the comments during a panel discussion marking the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which she moderated, in Ottawa on Wednesday.

"I am absolutely convinced, not only by the theory but by the lived experienced, that knowing that we have to face the questions of journalists, that we’re not going to be allowed as politicians, as a government, to grade our own work, it keeps us honest,” Ms. Freeland told the crowd of civil-society representatives, government officials and diplomats at the National Arts Centre, steps away from Parliament Hill.

“Democracy is about a much broader set of institutions, including a vibrant and vocal civil society and very much including journalists."

Ms. Freeland pointed to Time’s decision.

The annual cover story features Mr. Khashoggi, a critic of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince who was killed two months ago at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul; a pair of Reuters journalists imprisoned by Myanmar’s government for their coverage of the Rohingya genocide; the founder of a Philippine news website that has been critical of the country’s President; and the staff of the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, Md., where a gunman shot five people to death in June.

Ms. Freeland did not indicate if Canada will take any further measures against governments that persecute journalists. Last month, Canada followed the United States in imposing sanctions on 17 Saudis for the slaying of Mr. Khashoggi.

However, Ottawa has not shown any signs of toughening its position on arms sales to Saudi Arabia in light of Mr. Khashoggi’s killing. Although Ms. Freeland has said no new Canadian arms-export permits will be signed while the government reviews its arms sales to the Mideast kingdom, a controversial $15-billion deal to sell light armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia remains untouched.

At least 52 journalists were killed globally this year, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Speaking during Wednesday’s panel in Ottawa, Rachel Pulfer, executive director of Journalists for Human Rights, said increasing attacks on journalists force society to ask a critical question: “Who do you trust to tell the story?”

“The press is the custodian of the social contract between state and society," Ms. Pulfer said.

Rachel Vincent, director of advocacy and media at the Nobel Women’s Initiative, encouraged the Canadian government to maintain its support for civil-society organizations that support persecuted journalists – particularly women. For example, Ms. Vincent pointed to the case of Dina Meza, a journalist and human-rights activist in Honduras, who faces daily threats over her work.

“When journalists, like Dina Meza from Honduras, are under threat, she often turns to the women’s movement to help get her out of the country or to seek resources from government, like Canadian and other governments, to provide that safety, or to amplify her voice," Ms. Vincent said.

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