Journalism is not a crime

Court order to arrest reporter covering Muskrat Falls is unacceptable

Unprecedented order represents clear and present danger to press freedom in Canada
Photo: emmaatlarge

An order has been issued by a Newfoundland court, at the request of the Crown corporation Nalcor, to arrest 21 land protectors peacefully occupying the Muskrat Falls site. The order also directs the RCMP to arrest journalist Justin Brake of the Independent. On both counts, this is intolerable.

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By ordering the arrest of a working journalist, the court has launched a frontal assault on freedom of the press in this country. This unprecedented order requires an immediate and categorical denunciation from all media outlets.

Justin Brake is the editor of the Independent in Newfoundland. Founded in 2003 as a print publication, the Independent now publishes local news, opinion, letters and feature content for a Newfoundland and Labrador audience on its website. In the context of massive cuts to legacy media outlets, the Independent is no “alternative” to mainstream outlets. Rather, it is often the only outlet to send journalists to events, like the Muskrat Falls occupation, which the legacy media lack the resources to cover.

According to APTN, “The Independent has carved out a niche for itself in the province as a fearless independent voice of journalism.”

Brake has been onsite at the protest outside the gates to the Muskrat Falls project for over a week, filing regular reports to the Independent and posting nearly 30 Facebook Live videos to the outlet’s Facebook page, videos which average 10-15,000 views, with one reaching almost 60,000. Brake has previously published news reports on Ricochet as a freelance journalist, and is an authority on Newfoundland and Labrador affairs to many readers across Canada.

The reality is that if journalists have to fear legal consequences for doing their job, and reporting on activities which may be illegal, they simply will not cover actions like Muskrat Falls.

When a gate was cut, and protesters entered the site, he followed them in order to continue reporting on their activities. Why? Because that’s what good journalists do. You follow the story, wherever it may take you.

If a journalist is present at a riot to cover it, they are not guilty of participating in the riot. By the same token, a journalist who follows protesters onto private property to report on their actions is not guilty of trespassing.

Journalists at this outlet remember well being arrested during student protests and police kettles in Montreal in 2012, and each time being released once we identified as journalists.

The reality is that if journalists have to fear legal consequences for doing their job, and reporting on activities which may be illegal, they simply will not cover actions like Muskrat Falls. And we, the public, need and deserve that coverage.

The criminalization of journalism is one manifestation of the criminalization of dissent, and in North America it is of particular concern where Indigenous peoples are defending their lands. We see this in North Dakota, where mass arrests of the Standing Rock Sioux and their allies have been accompanied by absurd charges against Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman and other journalists reporting on this anti-pipeline struggle.

If we allow a fellow journalist to be arrested for doing their job, it just might be one of us in the handcuffs next time.

Brake is the only journalist on-site, and an essential source of news reporting on what is happening there for a national audience of Canadians. Now he faces arrest for doing his job.

The end result of this unprecedented order will be to remove from the site the most consistent and reliable source of reporting on developments there. Whose interests does that serve? It certainly does not serve the public interest, which Justice George Murphy is sworn to uphold as an officer of the court.

Ricochet calls on all media outlets to report on and editorially denounce this affront to press freedom. If we allow a fellow journalist to be arrested for doing their job, it just might be one of us in the handcuffs next time.

Ricochet also editorially condemns the order as a whole, as it relates to participants in the protest.

Our new government promised a nation-to-nation relationship with Indigenous peoples. Arresting dozens for staging a non-violent protest over well-founded concerns about the poisoning of their main food supply is not that.

The entire situation has received all too little coverage from national media. It’s time that changed.

Arrests will solve nothing, and targeting journalists for doing their job is abhorrent.

This order must be rescinded.

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