APTN National News
A journalist from Newfoundland and Labrador is facing criminal charges connected to protests over the Muskrat Falls hydro project last October.
Justin Brake works for TheIndependent.ca and when land protectors defied a court injunction and broke the past the gates at Nalcor Energy’s construction site, he followed.
The group occupied the site for four days, shutting down project operations.
Brake reported from inside the occupation.
“The coverage really shifted the balance of power,” said Brake. “Nalcor, government, or police; anybody on the outside wasn’t able to create a narrative that these were dangerous or destructive or violent people. By being able to record what was going on, The Independent was able to tell the real story of what was happening.”
But now Brake faces criminal charges of mischief over $5000 and disobeying a court injunction.
On March 8, RCMP laid 60 charges against 28 people as part an ongoing investigation by its major crimes unit. Brake was surprised to find his name on the list.
“The fact that they’re knowingly charging a journalist with two criminal offences is quite shocking and disturbing,” said Brake. “The RCMP are well aware of who I am and they know what I did in terms of reporting because I imagine they used my reporting to identify a lot of the people that they’re pressing charges against.”
Media organizers, including APTN, have been speaking out about the charges.
“APTN is very concerned that a reporter covering an important story has been charged while acting in the public interest,” said Karyn Pugliese, director of news and current affairs. “As reporters, our ability to bear witness events as they unfold and inform the public is critical to the democratic system. As members of the press we must be able to cover news freely, independently and objectively.”
In a release issued Thursday, Reporters Without Borders expressed alarm with the criminal charges.
“RSF strongly condemns the charges brought against a journalist who was merely doing his job covering an environmental protest of interest to the Canadian people,” said Margaux Ewen, Advocacy and Communications Director for RSF North America. “It seems these legal proceedings are being used to intimidate journalists and prevent them from covering such events, which is the latest incident in a series of egregious press freedom violations in Canada.”
Canadian Journalists for Free Expression also issued a release Thursday.
“The RCMP’s decision to charge Brake is an unacceptable assault on the public’s right to know, and could cause a chill in reporting on controversies over resource development projects and Indigenous-led protests,” said the release.
The organization points out that Brake is now facing criminal charges for the same “exclusive coverage on a matter of clear public interest” that earned a 2016 nomination by the Newfoundland and Labrador Human Rights Commission.
“This is a serious threat to press freedom,” said CJFE Executive Director Tom Henheffer.
“This is a well-known tactic to prevent coverage by denying access to journalists. The RCMP has a long history of brutality towards indigenous protesters, which is one reason it is critically important to have a journalist there as an observer,” he said.
Brake is already facing a civil charge for breaching a court injunction.
Nalcor, a provincially owned corporation, asked a Newfoundland and Labrador court for the injunction last October as protests outside the Muskrat Falls site picked up steam.
Brake was named on the injunction and appeared in court on February 14. His lawyer argued that Nalcor had not told the judge issuing the injunction that Brake was a working journalist and if that material fact had been known to the judge, he may have made a different decision.
A decision on those civil charges is expected by March 15.
“It’s a first step in what could be a long, drawn out and potentially constitutional legal battle over journalist’s rights,” said Brake.
Brake isn’t sure how the civil case may impact the criminal charges, if at all. The RCMP were always aware that Brake was a reporter. He spoke to the RCMP during the occupation. He went live on Facebook and posted updates, stories and picture on Twitter.
“It’s not going to stop me from doing journalism. If anything, I feel empowered. I feel a need to do my work but on a personal level it’s a major setback,” said Brake, whose wife is expecting their first child in June.
The maximum penalty for mischief over $5000 is ten years in prison.
“They’re criminalizing a journalist but they’re also turning me as an individual into a criminal, that’s what the RCMP is implying and I know that I’m innocent until proven guilty,” said Brake. “But the fact that the RCMP, the federal police body that is supposed to exist to make our country a better place is actively attacking a journalist and trying to turn somebody who has done important work into a criminal, it could have major negative consequences on my personal life if I’m convicted.”
The 28 people charged, including many Inuit and Innu land protectors from Labrador, will appear in provincial court on April 11 to answer the charges.