A Canadian press freedom group is throwing its weight behind a journalist who faces up to 10 years in jail for following demonstrators onto the controversial Muskrat Falls dam site in Labrador in order to cover the protest.
Canadian Journalists for Free Expression launched a petition Monday under the heading “journalism is not a crime,” calling on Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould and Newfoundland’s director of public prosecutions Frances Knickle to drop the charges against Justin Brake, a reporter and editor with The Independent, a provincial news outlet.
On March 7, the RCMP charged Brake with mischief greater than $5,000 and unlawfully disobeying an injunction. The charges carry up to a 10 year jail sentence if he’s convicted.
The criminal charges follow a civil contempt charge for disobeying the same injunction. In the next two days a judge is set to rule on the civil contempt charge, which could have an effect on the new charges as well, Brake told VICE News. He said his lawyer filed a statement with the court in October communicating that he is a journalist.
The charges stem from Brake’s reporting on the controversial Muskrat Falls dam project in Labrador that Indigenous locals fear will contaminate their water with mercury — reporting that led him to be nominated for the 2016 Newfoundland Human Rights Award.
Nalcor Energy, a provincial corporation, is building the dam in Labrador to generate renewable energy. Together with the Gull Island phase of the project, the controversial dam is expected to generate 16.7 terawatt hours of electricity for Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and eventually, the company hopes, New England. However, peer reviewed Harvard research has suggested the flooding of a 41 square kilometre swath of land will increase methylmercury levels downstream.
In October, amid daily protests and hunger strikes at an encampment outside the Muskrat Falls work site, Brake livestreamed on Facebook and filed updates on the ongoing resistance. At one point, a group of Indigenous protesters entered the Muskrat Falls work site despite an injunction ordering them to stay out, and began walking up a more than 20-kilometre stretch of road in order to occupy the work site.
Brake said he felt there was no other way he could cover the story of the Indigenous occupation of the work site, and he believed his press freedom was enshrined in the Canadian charter, so he followed them up the road.
“To do journalism, is the short answer,” he said when asked why he followed them. “This is a huge story, and that’s why we become journalists, to tell those stories.”
Inside the site at the workers camp, the protesters shook hands with workers on the site, and engaged in conversation about the issue.
“This is a huge story, and that’s why we become journalists, to tell those stories.”
“I couldn’t in good conscience abandon the story at that time, so I stayed with them … I think my coverage from inside the camp showed that these are not violent or aggressive people — these were elders, youth, an Anglican minister. These were people protecting their food and water, desperately.”
He said Nalcor had tweeted that the protest inside the site was dangerous, but his reporting countered that narrative.
Brake said Muskrat Falls shows government and corporations are “knowingly and willingly destroying Indigenous lands” and are breaking their commitments under the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. “Their commitment to Indigenous rights, respecting Indigenous rights, all that stuff is out the window with Muskrat Falls.”
If the charges aren’t dropped, Brake will appear in court either in person or by teleconference on April 11.