When a then 25-year-old Ben Peterson launched a global media development organization called Journalists for Human Rights in 2002, he faced his share of critics, skeptics and naysayers for somehow tainting the notion of “objectivity” in journalism. Fast forward 11 years, Journalists for Human Rights has become Canada’s largest media development charity. And as its founder put it, “If journalism isn’t for human rights, what is it for?” Kathy English, the Toronto Star's public editor, writes that no journalist need stand down from being for human rights.

 By Kathy English, public editor for the Toronto Star

When a then 25-year-old Ben Peterson launched a global media development organization called Journalists for Human Rights in 2002, he faced his share of critics, skeptics and naysayers.

Established journalists in particular questioned the new organization’s lofty mission: “To make everyone in the world fully aware of their rights.” Many admonished JHR co-founders Peterson and Alexandra Sicotte-Levesque for somehow tainting the notion of “objectivity” in journalism.

“When we started Journalists for Human Rights we kept hearing the same thing over and over again: journalists shouldn’t be for anything,” Peterson told me in an interview this week, just hours before JHR’s annual “Night For Rights” fundraising gala.

“We started out with no credibility. I was 25 at the time and I didn’t really know what we were doing,” said Peterson, who launched JHR after working in Ghana writing reports for United Nations. He became acutely aware of human rights abuses there and saw how little Ghanians understood their rights.


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“We just had an idea that the No. 1 thing needed to improve human rights around the world was to get more media around the world reporting on human rights,” Peterson said. “What really drove us was passion.”

Fast forward 11 years to last week’s gala, skipping over the early lean years when Peterson lived at home with his parents without a salary for his work in building JHR.

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Journalists for Human Rights has become Canada’s largest media development charity. It is now highly regarded by global human rights advocates and established journalists alike for its tireless work in training local journalists in sub-Sahara Africa to play a watchdog role in holding governments to account and report effectively on human rights abuses.

Since its founding, JHR has run programs in 18 countries, trained more than 12,000 African journalists and students and reached more than 50 million Africans with powerful human rights reporting. As well, it has launched chapters in universities and high schools across North America to raise students’ awareness of human rights.

Media sponsors of this year’s gala included the Toronto Star, CBC and CTV. A who’s who of this country’s media attended the event held at the Art Gallery of Ontario, raising an estimated $100,000 for JHR to expand in Africa and to build its first media development project in Canada to create greater awareness of aboriginal issues in northern Ontario.

Peterson is no longer at the helm of JHR, having recently co-founded Newsana, a community-driven news aggregation website. Two years ago he stepped down and journalist Rachel Pulfer became executive director. Peterson gives high praise to Pulfer for taking JHR to “the next level” by building relationships with well-established and influential Canadian journalists, and bringing them on board to work as mentors with African journalists.

Engaging local journalists in this worthy work has proven to be a successful strategy: “There’s nothing like going to the Congo to see journalism in free fall to understand the importance of media to make sure governments are held accountable and that people’s voices are heard and their stories told, Pulfer said.

To continue reading this column, please go thestar.com where it was originally published.

Tamara Baluja is an award-winning journalist with CBC Vancouver and the 2018 Michener-Deacon fellow for journalism education. She was the associate editor for J-Source from 2013-2014.