Rideau Hall, Tuesday, April 11, 2006.
It is an honour for me and my husband, Jean-Daniel Lafond, to welcome to Rideau Hall some of the greatest journalists and news organizations in Canada. As you may have guessed, I feel a personal connection to the Michener Award for Journalism because I, too, practised this profession with passion and resolve for many years.
For me, the Michener Awards Foundation motto, Veritas Ancilla Liberatis, meaning “Truth in the Service of Freedom,” captures the journalistic ideal and its power to liberate and bring about social change when pursued diligently and consistently. Napoleon Bonaparte, who was renowned for his fearlessness, once remarked that he would rather “face 100 000 bayonets than three newspapers.” It would seem that even he realized that newspapers could stir up the winds of freedom with such force that they could cause the citizens to rise up against him and bring him down.
Having lived under the yoke of a merciless dictatorship, I know the courage – the temerity – that journalists and news organizations need to carry out their work in the oppressed regions of the world. The threat that the media represent to the authorities is indicative of their scope and power. When authoritarian regimes fail to control the media and journalists, their retribution can be brutal, bloody and systematic. According to Reporters Without Borders, one third of the world’s people still live in countries where there is no freedom. More journalists lost their lives in 2005 than in each of the previous ten years. And so today, I would like to pay tribute to all of the women and men who have given their lives in the pursuit of truth. My thoughts are also with journalists who, at this very moment, are languishing in prison cells around the world.
In our democratic societies, journalists escape the dangers and threats often faced by their colleagues working under authoritarian regimes. However, this does not necessarily mean that they are completely free to practise their profession. These days, journalism is increasingly subject to economic constraints, the long-term effects of which are difficult to predict. Like any other business, news organizations must ensure their financial viability and, if possible, turn a profit. Ratings, circulation, increased advertising revenues – these are the pressures to which they must now submit. With this market‑driven logic, the risk is that profitability will gain the upper hand over the impartiality of information or that misinformation will begin to circulate. The result is that the citizens we serve begin to doubt the credibility of certain media or journalists.
The concentration of media is also worrisome in view of the ever‑increasing financial pressures on news organizations and their staff. If this trend remains unchecked, it may reduce the independence that is so vital to free expression and give rise to a homogenization of content. How, then, could there ever be debates, which encourage citizens to think and reflect, if there is no differing vision, if every medium reports the same news – in some cases, the same rumour – or the same point of view in the same way, often without even verifying the source? How can journalists report on the world in a feature article, an investigation, or a documentary, how can they bring us to see, feel and understand all that the world is, if there is nowhere they can be free to think or act rigorously?
We must be vigilant. This is why I am delighted that the Michener Award, which promotes not only excellence but also independence of thought, freedom of speech and the public interest, is awarded to a news organization. This award recognizes the commitment of an organization that endeavours not only to disseminate information, but also to arm the citizens with knowledge so that they might look more closely at reality. After all, the issue here is one of ethics.
The six finalists being honoured here tonight have one thing in common: they have helped to change society for the better. Whether by revealing the lack of security on Montreal’s subway system or at two major hydro-electric plants; exposing a dubious procedure for disclosing personal information to obtain a contraceptive; highlighting the need to fast-track the approval process for a breast cancer drug and make it more widely available; bringing to light the incompetence of a physician; or spotlighting the shortcomings in the child protection system, every feature, every documentary, every article nominated for the Michener Award has brought about a change that has helped to reshape Canadian society, to the benefit of us all.
Annick Cojean, who writes for Le Monde, once said: [translation] “Let us do away with clichés, let us face down stares, speeches, let us take the time to sound out hearts and souls, and let us at last tell how men live by choosing each word carefully. In so doing, we shall inspire tolerance over condemnation; respect, interest, even compassion. I like to believe that this is possible, when we put pen to paper. This is why I absolutely adore this profession.” Journalism has no real power unless it is used to present the facts and uncover the truth. When it succeeds in touching hearts and opening minds, it can change mentalities in lasting and profound ways.
I would like to thank the Michener Award finalists, whose journalistic integrity remains clear-sighted, engaged and focused on the common good. Congratulations to Julian Sher, this year’s Michener-Deacon Fellowship recipient, who will be investigating the scourge of child pornography.
You enable us to participate with insight and awareness in the evolution of this world that we have all inherited. And this, I believe, is invaluable. From the bottom of my heart, I thank you, one and all.
Her Excellency Michaëlle Jean
Governor General of Canada
Rideau Hall, Ottawa
April 11, 2006