Five Questions for Rachel Pulfer
J-Source sits down for an in-depth interview with Rachel Pulfer, the newly-named executive director for Journalists for Human Rights, to chat about the organization's upcoming 10th anniversary, entering Libya, and combating the atmosphere of fear in post-conflict countries.
J-Source: Many journalists have heard of jhr and they know what it is, but maybe aren’t sure what differentiates it from CJFE or Reporters Without Borders. You call jhr a media development charity. What is that? What sets it apart?
Rachel Pulfer: I’ll start out by differentiating us from CJFE and Reporters Without Borders. Both of those organizations do very, very valuable work promoting press freedom in the developing world and around the world. They shine a spotlight on journalists who are in prison and they advocate for those journalists’ causes. They run indexes to gauge the level of press freedom in different countries. Very, very valuable work; we work in tandem to some extent with what they do. But what we do is train local journalists and also build up the capacity of local media institutions, such as the local press unions, universities and so on to build those journalists’ capacities to tell hard-hitting stories that raise human rights issues andput them on the national agenda in non-certain terms. We are looking to build a robust, independent, and harder-hitting form of journalism within countries where that tradition has not necessarily been all that strong in the past.
Often what we find is we work in countries where we work with extremely courageous local journalists, such as Ato Kwamena Dadzie, a journalist in Ghana, who is currently actually in Massey College at the University of Toronto on a [Gordon N.] Fisher Fellowship. These journalists are brilliant, very, very hardworking, tenacious, but they don’t have the kinds of legal supports and they don’t operation in the kind of press freedom environment that Canadian journalists and journalists in the west enjoy. We work with people like that to ensure that they have strategies to tell stories that will ensure that human rights issues get on the national agenda that also ensures that their safety is secured.
This is not something that is easy. So far, we’ve been doing this for nine years. We’ve had some great successes. For example, from the dramatic, getting a corrupt cabinet minister in Liberia getting fired for negligence, to the very intimate, publicizing the case of a woman who had been swindled out of her school fees by a crooked school fee broker in Sierra Leone and us ensuring she can stay in school.
J-Source: You’ve worked in 17 different African countries. The differences between reporting here in Canada and reporting in Africa can seem overwhelming when it comes to human rights. What are some of the biggest challenges facing media there right now, and some of the things that you’re doing to address them?
RP: We currently work in Liberia, Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi, and Ghana. Our focus for the past few years has been very much on working in post-conflict environments, countries that have been through an extended civil war, or another kind of experience that has largely decimated the media landscape in those countries. What we face in that case, is a situation where, for example, in Liberia, a freedom of information act was passed last year, but then the implementation of it has been complicated. One of our partners, a fantastic and incredibly courageous journalist named Rodney Sieh, who is editor of Front Page Africa in Monrovia, found himself being tossed in jail in January of this year for publishing a letter to the editor that was critical of a member of the Supreme Court of Liberia. We made some phone calls, we also worked with CJFE on this case, and ensured Rodney was out by the end of that weekend and that Rodney was able to continue to do the much tougher, and much more independent type of journalism that his newspaper has become known for in Liberia. That gives you some example of the kinds of challenges that folks face.
In the Congo, we’ve run into an endemic atmosphere of fear. Every journalist in the Congo has a story about a colleague that was working on a tough story and left the office one day never to return, the files of said story showed up in the car of the minister they were investigating, for example. That’s an actual story that I heard when I was in the Congo of July of 2010. In an atmosphere like that we’re fighting the fear that journalists face and encounter every day when they’re making decisions about what stories to follow up on and how deep to go. We’ve been working across the country, province by province, setting up press clubs [with] journalists who are affiliated with jhr so they can work together when they experience these kinds of threats as a result of fair, accurate, and professional reporting.
For example, recently, when I was in the Congo in September I went to Matadi, and sat in on a training that our staff was conducting. The focus of the training was on fair and professional election coverage, because there is a presidential election in the Congo in November of this year. After the journalists we were working with went out into the field and started putting some of the principles that we had been encouraging them to consider into practice, one of the journalists – it was a female journalist, you know surprise – received a threatening phone call from one of the politicians she’d been covering stating that she was incorrect in representing his candidacy in her broadcast (she was a radio journalists) and that she should cease and desist or else. The response of the Matadi journalists was brilliant. They all came together to work with her to publicize the fact that she had been threatened, and to send a message to the politician that if he’s going to engage in practices like that, they would not be giving him access to their airways for the duration of the election. Obviously, that’s something that politicians worldwide care a great deal about – media time – and so the threats were rescinded.
But it’s difficult. It’s a very, very tough environment in the Congo, and I have nothing but the greatest respect for the journalists we work with there. They deal with greater challenges than Canadian journalists could ever imagine, including on occasion – in fact, quite frequently – not getting paid for the work that they do, which raises other problems. In the instance of journalists not getting paid, one of the issues that we face in all of our country programs, including Ghana and Malawi, is an issue which in some parts of Africa is called brown envelope journalism (in other parts of Africa, it’s called Christmas, in Congo it’s called coupage) where journalists go to press conferences, often run by NGOs, unfortunately, where they are then given envelopes of cash in return for producing or publishing a press release verbatim. We’ve been working on that issue as well, trying to encourage better business practices on the parts of the media managers so that they more hard-hitting community engagement journalism that we’re encouraging them to produce can translate into greater ad sales, larger print runs, and more capacity to pay their journalists. We’ve had success in a couple of well-documented cases in Liberia.
The other aspect is simply encouraging journalists that if they produce a story that is paid for, then it is paired with a story that is credible, that is not paid for. It’s truly strategies like that that we have to employ, because we are dealing with the reality that these journalists are not able fully sustain themselves through the living that they make from journalism.
J-Source: How have you found the reception when you go into do these programs on behalf of journalists but also the people that own the news organizations?[node:ad]
RP: Reception has been largely positive. We’ve had difficulty in the past with confused expectations on both sides. Our way of resolving that has been with every single partner that we engage to sign memoranda of understanding so the terms of the training exercise are very, very clear. It’s important to do that, because it allows media management to weigh in, to negotiate those terms, and to have buy-in to the process. It also ensures when there are difficulties, which occasionally arise, we can revert to that piece of paper and say, ‘Hey, there’s some clarity here around how we’re supposed to be moving forward with these programs and here are the benefits you asked us to provide you with and here is what we understood our role to be in these environments.’ And we have found that since we have introduced that as a policy across the board, our problems with misunderstandings have been greatly minimized.
In fact, at the moment, in two of our programs we have the opposite problem of what I originally anticipated when I took this job: many more media organizations asking for our trainers and our training, than we have trainers to provide. We, for example, were in a slightly strange position of telling the United Nations radio station that no, we didn’t think it was appropriate that we put a trainer in their station because they have UN resources. We were very flattered, but it was more appropriate for us to be working with local community media. They understood, and they have become an important partner in that they often pick up or broadcast our stories across the country. It’s been interesting to see how that aspect of programming has played out.
What’s been extremely important to us is ensuring that prior to any new country program we do an extensive needs assessment in-country – sorry that’s development world speak for going to a country and meeting with all the prospective partners and getting their feedback as to where they see the value of doing a program of this kind. To a greatest extent as possible those partners drive the design of the program that we then subsequently propose to our donors. That’s an extremely important part of our process. The other important part is making sure our programs are managed in country by charismatic, credible, local journalists.
J-Source: You mentioned you wanted to develop new programs. What might you be looking at?
RP: As I indicated earlier, we’re interested in working in post-conflict countries and countries in transition. Obviously, the events of the Arab Spring have been of great interest to us. This represents a new challenge for the organization because the kind of media operating in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya are, to some extent, older and more established than the media we’ve been working with in sub-Saharan Africa. That said, we have been conducting needs assessments in Tunisia, Egypt, and South Sudan during the summer, and we’ll be putting together proposals to do work in all three of those countries going into the new year.
We are also interested in, conversely, in a possible project in Tanzania. Tanzania is not a post-conflict country; it has, relatively-speaking, a sophisticated media. But we have found as we have been partnering with more media organizations, both in Canada and internationally – we have parternships with the BBC World Service Trust and with Agence France Presse – that we would like to refine our programming a little bit more and work with media in East Africa that are at a slightly more advanced level of development than is the case where the landscape was decimated post-conflict. To summarize: We’re interested in working in Egypt, Tunisia, South Sudan and Tanzania.
Locally, at home, we’ve had an interesting new development in that one of our top trainers at one of our youth programs came back to Canada with a really interesting idea and a proposition to do development in First Nations communities, starting in Northern Ontario, then hopefully spreading across the country. We’ve been doing a needs assessment with First Nations media in Northern Ontario to assess the level of interest, to assess the level of need. We’ve been getting an extremely positive response, so I think we might be moving forward with a totally new program that puts the emphasis on media development squarely on our First Nations communities at home. Which, I like because often one of the questions I get when I go on these various trips to meet with journalists overseas is, ‘What kind of work do you do in Canada? Because we know the media in Canada is not perfect either.’ This is one of our initiatives to expand our commitment to this form of human rights reporting at home as well as abroad.
J-Source: So, challenges. What do you anticipate jhr will face in the next five years as it grows, and how will you meet them?
RP: Our biggest challenge is, well obviously, fundraising. To date, our model has been very much focused on proposing programs that are funded by international donor agencies, CIDA, DFID in the UK, the State Department in the U.S., Australian aid funds our Congo program, and we also have a program in Sierra Leone funded by the European Union, which is great and it’s excellent to have that kind of track record. It shows that all these different types of government have confidence in our work. I’ve been told by many different project managers that they would like to continue to support our work in any way, shape, or form and that we will be able to continue to work with them on future projects – so that’s very confidence inspiring.
However, I would very much like to move the needle a little bit at jhr so that we are being also more supported by communities in Canada, at home. It would to build more support from the journalism community in Canada, for example, but also from other communities: young professionals, people that are interested in development issues. We are the largest media development organization in Canada, and yet most of our funding comes from elsewhere. There’s an irony to that and it would be one of my goals in this process moving forward is to start to really make a lot of effort to build out the community [in Canada] to reach out to a community of people that are interested in and engaged by jhr’s work, to start to run more, a series of events to help publicize what we do, ensure when trainers come home they’re able to talk about their experiences in public, and get feedback from the journalistic community and other interested communities. I feel that this is something very important for us moving forward. Ideally, I would like to get to a position where we have 60 per cent of our funding coming from the governments that support us, and then 40 per cent from private fundraising. We’ll be working toward that goal going forward.