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.
With Files from Eva Crocker