Defend the Indy, Defend Your Dwindling Access to Information

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A recent affront on the healthy flow of information from media to the public should be drawing more ire.

It was announced last week that journalist Justin Brake  (of The Independent) is being criminally charged by the RCMP for being among the land protectors involved in the Indigenous-led occupation of Muskrat Falls last October, during the controversial flooding of lake Melville.

Whether you supported or disagreed with the demonstration is a different matter, than that of a legal system compromising Freedom of the Press. As a citizen, you should want journalists to feel safe and welcome on the ground at demonstrations.

Without a reporter on the ground, the public can’t know the truth of a situation. We have to trust what we hear, which these days is no longer wise. So the public should be disturbed by these charges against Justin. Asking media to leave a demonstration is like saying “we don’t want the world to know what happens next” and no one should have that power.

By being on the ground with land protectors, Justin was able to live stream the demonstration, so that nothing was left up to the imagination of the province’s people, or to hearsay. We could see, with our own eyes, what was happening on the ground and judge for ourselves what we thought of it.

Back in October, Justin told The Overcast, “I decided to come up here because as I was watching the narrative around Muskrat Falls unfold in public discourse, there was a significant part of the story that I felt was being left out or not adequately addressed. That was the issues around indigenous rights and human rights.”

After exhausting all other methods of having their concerns heard and remedied, On October 22nd, land protectors cut the lock on the project’s main gate, walked the dirt road to the main worker’s camp, and demanded the project be halted until concerns around methylmercury contamination of their waters and wild foods were adequately addressed.

Brake elaborated that, “I felt it was important to document the Indigenous-led resistance to Muskrat Falls and make sure that the voices resisting the project were heard, in terms of their concerns and fears that the project would severely impact their ability to continue feeding their families and preserve their way of life.”

That was all Justin was doing, and that is media’s ultimate service to us: informing the public so they may make their own minds up about a situation. No bias, no one-sided slants, just a live stream of local people standing together against something they felt would jeopardize their health and way of life.

For that, Brake reports his charges carry a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.

On Oct. 24th, Brake’s name appeared on a court order; he was to be arrested if he did not leave the Muskrat Falls site. Brake left the site, and now awaits Justice George Murphy’s decision as to whether or not Nalcor had an obligation to inform the court, when it applied for the injunction, that Brake was on the Muskrat Falls site as a working journalist.

His footage certainly triggered a response province- and nation-wide, and Tom Henheffer, the Executive Director for Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, implies that may be why he was charged. Henheffer feels these charges go beyond being a serious threat to press freedom, and calls the action against Justin “a well-known tactic to prevent coverage [of indigenous issues].”

On their end, RCMP NL has stated, “The RCMP respects and protects the right to peaceful demonstrations as guaranteed under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The role of the RCMP when unlawful acts occur during a demonstration is to ensure public safety, preserve the peace, and enforce the law while upholding the fundamental freedom of peaceful demonstrators.”

Oddly enough, back in December, Brake was recognized by the N.L. Human Rights Council, an agency of the Newfoundland and Labrador provincial government, for the very work he is now being charged for conducting.

To cover Brake’s legal fees, The Independent has launched a pay-what-you-can Legal Defence Fund, which will help Brake and The Independent defend themselves.

The Independent is a unique media body, in that they rely mostly on donations from their readers, as opposed to operating exclusively on ad revenue or tax-dollars. Therefore, “Any funds remaining after this legal battle will be used by The Independent to produce and defend more great journalism.”

A coalition of journalism groups, including Canadian Journalists for Free Expression and the Canadian Association of Journalists, issued a statement condemning the charges as “an outrageous assault by the RCMP on press freedom in Canada.” The statement feared the charges “could cause a chill in reporting on controversies over resource development projects and indigenous-led protests.”

Justin worries that “if journalists fear their constitutional rights will not be recognized and respected by corporations, governments, or police, then they will hesitate to cover stories such as this,” which will leave the public uninformed about its most controversial, important issues.

Justin will appear in provincial court in Happy Valley-Goose Bay April 11, along with 28 reseidents of Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Cartwright, Sheshatshui, Northwest River, Rigolet, Port Hope Simpson and Benoit’s Cove.

About Author

Chad Pelley

Chad Pelley is an author, songwriter, and journalist who wrote for publications like the Globe & Mail and The Telegraph-Journal before founding The Overcast. Now he spends 25 hours a day keeping up with his email, and has no time to be his former self.

5 Comments

  1. I would truly like to see this solely as an issue of press freedom, but that would be a lot easier if the “journalist” in question had more credibility than Justin Brake. No bias? No one-sided slants? The Independent is the most rabidly biased so-called news outlet I have ever seen. They are better described as activists rather than journalists, and I can see there being a case for treating Justin Brake like any other activist found trespassing on the Muskrat Falls site that day.

    Also, it’s amusing how the Independent and it’s supporters keep referring to this guy as “facing up to ten years in prison.” Technically it may be accurate, but it’s also a bit disingenuous. Does anyone honestly believe that Justin Brake will ever set foot in a jail cell? Not bloody likely. It’s one thing to talk about police/government harassing journalists, but to pretend that Brake is facing real prison time comes off as self-aggrandizing, and possibly even exploitative of the situation as they are seeking donations from the public.

    • That journalists are ever completely unbiased (or should be) is the biggest myth in print. All writers come to a subject loaded with preconceptions based on their upbringing and experience. It’s socialization. Writing “protestors” or “land protectors” or “people” each have implications. Staying at the gate of the Muskrat Falls site rather than entering is a stance in itself – it betrays faith in what Nalcor and the RCMP will later report about what goes on inside. It would not be the first time a police force was complicit in protecting corporate assets over people (especially assets so near and dear to the government). There may or may not be a conflict between reports and reality – that is why it is important to have a camera and a voice on scene, and preferably several.

      You are absolutely right that Brake will, in all likelihood, not go to jail. It is a publicity move, but the fact that it is even on the table is still worth noting. I would hardly begrudge them looking for cash; there will certainly be legal bills and the outlet is chronically underfunded.

      • Of course individual journalists will have their own opinions, that is human nature, but I optimistically believe that most mainstream news outlets in Canada do a fairly good job of keeping their reporting objective. It tends to be the wingnuts who find bias in Canadian news reports. For example, right-wingers don’t like the CBC because it receives public funding, while lefties distrust outlets like CTV because they are owned by big business. Those prejudices aside, I follow news reports from both outlets and I find them fairly balanced. The Independent is different, they openly engage in “advocacy journalism” with an ultra left-wing bent, every report they produce espouses radical ideology, and a lot of people (myself included) don’t like to see that in news reporting. I don’t see them as any different than Ezra Levant and his people at Rebel Media, they’re just coming from the other end of the political spectrum.

        I’ve been on the fence about the whole thing with Justin Brake. I don’t think of him as a real journalist, but I also think it’s shameful that there were no legitimate reporters on the scene. He probably shouldn’t have been charged, but I’m not going to get outraged about this as some sort of assault on press freedom, and I certainly will not be giving them any money.

        I guess the one thing we can agree on is that there should have been more reporters on the scene.

  2. JASON WHELAN on

    THIS IS ANOTHER ATTEMPT TO MAKE THE ISSUE ABOUT FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION OR RIGHTS. ALL OTHER REPORTERS STAYED OUTSIDE THE GATES. BRAKE COULD HAVE GOTTEN THE VIDEO PASSED OUT TO HIM. HE MADE A DECISION TO ENTER PRIVATE PROPERTY AND WAS THE ONLY ONE IN THE MEDIA TO DO SO. NOT ONE CBC REPORTER OR MAINSTREAM PRINT MEDIA REPORTER SEEMS TO BACK THIS BEHAVIOUR. AS NOTED ABOVE, HE WILL NOT DO JAIL TIME FOR EITHER MISCHIEF (WHICH WILL BE HARD TO PROVE) OR BREACH OF COURT ORDER WHICH IS A MUCH LESS SERIOUS CHARGE. PRESS DO NOT HAVE EXEMPTION FROM CRIMINAL CODE INFRACTIONS BY CLAIMING THEY NEED TO TELL STORIES FOR THE PUBLIC GOOD. THIS STORY WAS ALREADY BEING COVERED UNDER THE GUIDELINES IN THE FIRST INJUNCTION. THAT DOESN’T LET NALCOR OFF THE HOOK, BUT THIS IS GOING WAY BEYOND THE POINT OF REASONABLE DEFENSE.

    • Yes, because the other media outlets did such a great job getting video “passed out” to them. If Brake wasn’t in there it wouldn’t have been covered. Should it not have been?

      I have to say, some comments from members of the mainstream media on this have been surprisingly petty. Good for them for following the law without question I guess? Enjoy re-running photos of a police blockade and sifting through media releases, I am sure it will earn you points with government.

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