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Opinion World Press Freedom Day: Fake news is not the biggest threat; it’s apathy

Tom Henheffer is executive director of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression

On World Press Freedom Day, the biggest threat to free expression is not fake news. It isn't the stroke of a censor's pen or CSIS or Bashar al-Assad or even Donald Trump.

It's apathy – the idea that our voices don't matter.

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There is a struggle being waged in the shadows, and its outcome is a threat to peace, civil society and the very soul of our democracy. You see it in the rising tide of hate across Canada, in the all-too-literal return of fascism in Europe, in the terrifying lack of action on climate change, in wealth inequality, in a horrifying migrant crisis that begs for empathy but has been undermined by racism and bigotry. All of these are issues made worse by declining standards for truth, transparency and access to information. The above crises are merely symptoms of much deeper problems – declining public trust in the media, decimated newsrooms and the eroding right of everyday citizens to speak out.

If we sit this out and stay neutral, while waiting for the front lines of the looming culture war to reach us in our private lives, it will be too late.

I'm sick of good people doing nothing, while a tide of political extremism and cultural supremacy takes a central position in the public debate, while some Canadian journalists are spied on and others face jail time, and while our country slips ever farther in Reporters sans frontière's World Press Freedom Index (we're down another four spots this year, and out of the top 20 countries for the first time in our history).

I've been the executive director at Canadian Journalists for Free Expression going on four years now. Together, we've saved the lives of scores of journalists around the world. We and our partners have brought persecuted Turkish, Eritrean and Bangladeshi media workers to safety in Canada. We were there to help challenge (and ultimately topple) a corrupt regime in Croatia, to get imprisoned Al Jazeera reporter Mohamed Fahmy released from Egypt, to help pass crucial anti-SLAPP legislation in Ontario and to get Canada's first-ever press shield law through the Senate.

Together, we stood up for independent journalists in Montreal who have faced police violence. Now we're taking a stand for reporters Ben Makuch and Justin Brake, two Canadian journalists who face jail time for simply doing their jobs. Over the years, we've gone to court for countless similar cases.

It's a tireless and expensive vigil, and there's always more work, but now there's a very real possibility that we won't be able to do it.

Why? Because while people believe free expression is important, they've been paralyzed into thinking their voices don't matter. Too many good people think that someone else is going to take care of it.

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They're wrong. There is no one else.

Opponents of free and open societies have no problem finding resources.

Money is pouring into hate groups and "alt-right" news outlets. These groups have co-opted the cause of free expression to build sympathy for hateful causes. Cash is pouring into corporate lobbying firms and lining the pockets of politicians who are happy to make policy that keeps them in office while disenfranchising the public. Violent bigots are marching with alarming frequency in Canada and all around the world.

Most disturbingly, they are doing it under the banner of "free expression."

Compared to multimillion dollar media empires, we operate on a budget of less than $400,000 a year. Almost everything we spend goes directly into our programs. We work in a tiny one-room office at a shared working space. We never throw cash at expensive ad campaigns; we scrimp and save while asking lawyers, news wires and public relations firms to offer their services for free. But our message reaches millions, and we make a difference.

Groups like ours are on the front lines, but many are about to vanish in a storm of hate and vitriol that is upending civil society. We know this isn't because Canadians have stopped caring, but rather, because they haven't realized that the time to care is right now.

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It isn't too late. Civil society needs you. Volunteer. Donate. E-mail your MP or your cabinet minister. Tweet – but don't just tweet, take action.

Let's save our right to free expression, our free press, our democracy, together.

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