Changes to Radio Canada International come at expense to core mandate, say supporters

reprinted with permission The Hill Times

By NEIL MOSS May 5, 2021

‘Radio Canada International has just one mandate and that is to explain Canada to the world,’ says former host Wojtek Gwiazda.

A former host at Radio Canada International, Wojtek Gwiazda is behind a push to reverse changes that he fears will hamper the international service in performing its mandate. Photograph courtesy of Wojtek Gwiazda
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The decline of Canada’s international public broadcaster will affect the country’s output on the global stage, say former diplomats and a group opposing cuts to Radio Canada International.

Radio Canada International (RCI), the international broadcasting wing of Canada’s public broadcaster, transmitted throughout the world to China, Russia, and the Middle East before its shortwave service was cut in 2012.

The latest cuts by CBC/Radio-Canada, a spokesperson for a group to protect RCI’s funding said, will lead to an erosion of the news service’s mandate as it will be increasingly tasked with translation and adaptation of news stories for a domestic audience.

The redesign of RCI cut the number of employees from 20 to nine, with five journalists to translate and adapt CBC and Radio-Canada reports, as well as three field reporters and a chief editor.The news team has been tasked to expand the five languages being covered by RCI to seven, and to produce weekly podcasts in each of the languages, while also turning out field reports in “Chinese, Arabic, and Punjabi,” as described in the CBC’s announcement.

RCI Action Committee spokesperson Wojtek Gwiazda said the new changes are directed at ethnic communities in Canada and not at the mandate of the news service which serves international audiences.

“Radio Canada International has just one mandate and that is to explain Canada to the world,” said Mr. Gwiazda, a former host and producer at RCI. “Nowhere in that mandate is programming for people in Canada.”

He said the uniqueness of RCI is not that it can be accessed internationally, but that it contextualizes programming for people globally who may have little or no knowledge of Canada.

When the shortwave broadcasting was cut from RCI in 2012, Mr. Gwiazda said CBC “totally ignored” the impact of their decision internationally.

“Can you imagine what it would be like if we were still broadcasting to China with two Canadians still in jail?” he said.

RCI’s transmissions to China ended with the cancellation of its shortwave broadcasts, Mr. Gwiazda said, because Beijing blocked access to the RCI website but not to radio.

A spokesperson for CBC/ Radio-Canada said the changes “are fully aligned” with its RCI mandate for international service.

“We are confident that the transformation will raise RCI’s profile and reach even further. The service will continue to reflect and showcase Canadian society and values for audiences unfamiliar with Canada,” Marc Pichette said in an email.

“In terms of editorial content, RCI editors will select articles they deem relevant to the interests and concerns of their target audience, and then translate or adapt them accordingly. The RCI team will also produce an original podcast each week in Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, Punjabi and Tagalog,” he said, adding the Arabic, Chinese, and Punjabi field reporters will be assigned “to engage with those communities and produce stories that will resonate with target audiences abroad.”

Since the new plans were announced, numerous former diplomats and foreign policy experts have come out in opposition to the cuts.

A group of renowned Canadians penned an open letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) in February to oppose the change. Signatories of the letter include former prime minister Joe Clark, past foreign affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy, and former ambassador to the UN Stephen Lewis, as well as 30 others.

They called on Mr.Trudeau to block the changes by CBC/Radio- Canada.

“In an interconnected world in search of truth, facts, and honest journalism, countries like Canada cannot abdicate their role on the world stage,” the letter noted.

“It’s not a question of whether we can afford to have a strong Radio Canada International. It’s whether we can afford not to have it.”

A group of 45 former diplomats also signed on to an open letter last March in support of safeguarding the work of RCI.

“As diplomats who have served Canada all over the globe, we know the benefits to our country of foreign audiences knowing about Canada,” the former ambassadors and high commissioners wrote.

“We believe that diminishing RCI’s core mandate of programming for an external audience is a mistake. It is true that the internet now gives access to many Canadian sources of information, including the CBC, but RCI’s uniqueness is its experience in explaining the Canadian reality to foreign audiences not familiar, or barely aware of Canada and its reality.”

Canadian Ambassador to the UN Bob Rae tweeted on April 27 that the cuts are “most regrettable.”

“We should be amplifying, and not reducing, our international voice and perspective,” he wrote.

Mr. Pichette said the “repositioning was absolutely necessary to better reach digital citizens around the world and to ensure the service remains current and relevant.”

“With greater visibility on CBC-News.ca and Radio-Canada.ca, RCI will benefit from the increased traffic and search engine optimization of those sites,”he added.

Speaking at the House of Commons Committee on Canadian Heritage, Liberal MP Anthony Housefather (Mount Royal, Que.) said the proposed cuts to RCI were “problematic.”

He told Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault (Laurier-Sainte-Marie, Que.) that he hoped the changes would be looked at.

“I believe RCI is a very important service that must provide international audiences with original or adapted programming in both English and French as well as other languages and I will continue to work with the Heri- tage Ministry to make sure that this occurs,” Mr. Housefather told The Hill Times in an email.

NDP MP Heather McPherson (Edmonton Strathcona, Alta.), her party’s critic for Canadian heritage, said she has a lot of concerns about broadcasting in Canada and what is being lost and how it will impact democracy.

She said she has concerns over the funding levels for all wings of Canada’s public broadcaster, noting in particular news broadcasting in French.

Ms. McPherson said the cuts to RCI was another extension of Canada’s diminishing role on the world stage.

“It is another extension of us losing sight of the fact that the world is increasingly global.The problems we face are increasingly global in scope, yet our response is increasingly nationalistic,” she said.

Support of former diplomats shows importance of RCI’s international service: Gwiazda

The work of RCI in disseminating Canadian content for international audiences is the reason that it has gotten so much support from former members of the Canadian foreign service and foreign policy experts, said Mr. Gwiazda.

“They realize the impact of Radio Canada International and they also understand the importance of that kind of public diplomacy,” he said.

In a March 21 letter to its members, Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers (PAFSO) president Pamela Isfeld said the association is “saddened” to hear of CBC’s changes.

“For many of you at home and abroad, [RCI] has been an important source of news and information, as well as a significant public diplomacy resource,” she added.

Ms. Isfeld wrote that PAFSO joined the 45 former diplomats who called for a reversal to the changes.

Mr. Gwiazda said people around the globe are interested in how Canada deals with things, noting that when RCI cut Eastern European languages in the early 1990s there was pushback from those countries who thought having a Canadian perspective was even more important after the fall of the Soviet Union to understand how a democracy functions.

Mr. Gwiazda said the former diplomats who are supporting RCI understand that it had an impact and that it will be “a tragedy if it continues to be diminished.”

nmoss@hilltimes.com

The Hill Times, page 3, May 5, 2021

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Article by Admin RCI Action Committee Website

Wojtek Gwiazda has been the spokesperson for the RCI Action Committee since 1991. The Committee is supported and funded by the union that represents almost all RCI employees: the Syndicat des travailleuses et travailleurs de Radio-Canada (STTRC formerly SCRC). E-mail: wojtekrciaction@gmail.com Read 108 articles by Admin RCI Action Committee Website
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