Freedom of the Press

Newfoundland and Labrador is trying to jail a journalist for doing his job

Justin Brake faces prison time for reporting from an Indigenous occupation
Janet Cooper

A provincial court judge in Labrador ruled Monday that criminal charges against journalist Justin Brake would proceed. In 2016 Brake was a reporter and editor with the Newfoundland and Labrador Independent, a popular local and independent media outlet in an underserved media market. When protesters entered the construction site for the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project Brake, who was one of the only journalists covering the protest, followed them in.

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Over the next week the Indigenous occupation to block a massive construction project that would flood their lands went on, and Brake reported from within, posting regular articles to the Independent’s website and almost 30 Facebook Live videos to the outlet’s Facebook page.

It’s an affront to freedom of the press and it’s an outrage and a misuse of the justice system.

It was historic, pioneering work. A journalist was inside an Indigenous protest camp, livestreaming what the protesters had to say out for all the world to see. It’s the kind of work that gets you nominated for prestigious human rights awards, as Brake was. In 2017 Brake was hired as an on-air journalist for national network APTN, with his week in the Muskrat Falls camp the highlight of his stellar CV in journalism.

In his community, Brake is a celebrated figure. A dedicated journalist getting information out to people that want it, and going far above and beyond the call of duty.

But along with plaudits, his journalism earned him something else: criminal charges for mischief and disobeying a court order, and civil contempt proceedings in Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court based on the same set of facts. Brake will now be forced to defend himself in two separate trials for doing his job. These charges represent a full-frontal assault on freedom of the press, and have been denounced by virtually every press freedom organization in the country. In 2017 Canada dropped four spots on the World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders. The group cited the Brake case as one of four issues that caused our ranking to fall.

Now, this week, when given an opportunity to quash this outrageous abuse of power, provincial court judge Wynne Anne Trahey instead allowed it to proceed to trial.

It’s an affront to freedom of the press and it’s an outrage and a misuse of the justice system. But it’s also something else: desperately embarrassing for Canada, Newfoundland and Labrador and the reputation of our rule of law.

Hello? Prosecutors? Judges? Administrators? Premier? Are there no adults in the room?

It’s embarrassing to judge Trahey, who has allowed this fiasco to continue, and to director of public prosecution Frances Knickle, who is the ringmaster in this circus of ineptitude. Most of all, it’s embarrassing to premier Dwight Ball that he seems perfectly content to watch his government aggressively pursue a journalist for doing their job.

Not only is the province prosecuting Brake criminally, but the civil charges are being pressed by a crown corporation, Nalcor Energy. Two arms-length branches of Dwight Ball’s government are simultaneously pursuing a working journalist, and the premier is turning a blind eye.

The prosecution of an on-the-job journalist whose work has angered the government cannot be tolerated in a free and fair society.

Look, we get it Dwight. Brake pissed your government off something fearsome by broadcasting the voices of the occupiers. That live video link helped turn the population against the government in the standoff, and brought international attention to the issue. It’s not the first time good reporting has stymied a government, nor will it be the last.

But Ball is reacting like an emotional five year-old by allowing this bizarre prosecution to proceed without intervention or even comment. Does the premier think it appropriate to prosecute journalists who follow the subjects of their reporting onto private property?

The prosecution of an on-the-job journalist whose work has angered the government cannot be tolerated in a free and fair society.

If you want to support Brake’s right to freedom of the press, you can send a message to premier Dwight Ball by emailing premier@gov.nl.ca. We really shouldn’t have to fight for something so basic as respect for a free press, but here we are anyhow and for that the buck stops with Dwight.

Postscript

There’s another angle to this story. Despite outraged statements from press freedom groups across the country, the mainstream media has persistently refused to give this saga the coverage it deserves and mainstream pundits have had virtually nothing to say about it. They seem unconcerned with the riff-raff who work for independent media outlets. Evidently Brake is not part of their tribe, nor their conception of who is and is not a journalist.

Many of those same pundits, in the same time-period they were studiously ignoring the Brake case, were wringing their hands about how principle compelled them to defend the rights of Ezra Levant and Rebel Media to be treated the same as any other media outlet by various levels of government.

If you find yourself duty-bound to defend Ezra Levant’s journalistic rights, but not those of a young and talented independent journalist being pursued by the government for his reporting, then you are harming not helping the fight for freedom of expression and freedom of the press.

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