Last week, journalist Justin Brake was arrested for covering the protests against the construction of the Muskrat Falls hydro plant in Newfoundland and Labrador. Justin was named in an injunction and subpoena issued at the request of Nalcor - the Crown Corporation created by, almost entirely funded by and largely managed by current and former members of the provincial government.
The arrest of Justin Brake is the most recent in a long and inglorious line of tactics used by the province and it's agents to suppress dissent and silence journalists. In the last two years, the Province has barred journalists like Jon Keefe from attending press briefings, hiding behind policies that they can't, or won't, provide. Communications directors have ignored requests for information or hidden behind solicitor-client privilege in order to deny or redact requests. When pressed, misinformation within departments to question the credentials of journalists or their motivations in order to persuade other members of staff not to give information that it is clearly in the public interest.
Jamie Parkinson, Prairies Regional Director for the Canadian Freelance Union said:
“In the last year I have had my motivations questioned by the Director of Communications for the Department of Justice and Public Safety. This person has then gone on to email members of his department to claim that I am motivated by personal interest, that I am not a ‘real’ journalist and that any requests for information should be ignored.
“I’ve had sarcastic comments spread around by the heads of the Legal Aid Commission and have had a member of my family threated with arrest by the Head of Finance for the City of Mount Pearl if anyone asks the City any questions at all.
“Of course, as bad as this seems, it is nowhere near as bad as being arrested for covering a story or being shot dead for complaining about delays in the Workers Compensation Department. I would like to personally call on Premier Dwight Ball to explain what he intends to do about the clear culture of systemic bullying and harassment that exists with respect to journalists and the right of the public to know and complain about things done in their name.”
More recently, we have seen journalists with the accreditation and security clearance apparently needed to attend press briefings barred from the seat of the provincial government to prevent them from covering protests happening inside the building. As is common with despotic regimes, this is apparently for security reasons, yet government employees are allowed to come and go unmolested and unhindered.
Even private citizens are denied their right to even criticize by the provincial government, notably in the case of Don Dunphy who was shot and killed by the Premier's bodyguard on a Sunday afternoon after posting a Tweet that the officer in question has stated was not a threat.
Nalcor may be a Crown Corporation, but it's relationship with the government is very close with half of the board being former senior civil servants and the CEO being a hand-picked appointee of the current administration. The province guarantees Nalcor's loans, hands over billions in funding and enables the corporation's very existence by Act of the legislature.
The government could, and should, have told Nalcor to remove Mr Brake's name from it's injunction once it became clear that Mr Brake was attending the protest in his capacity as a journalist. The provincial government could, and should, have withheld funding to Nalcor to ensure that the constitutionally-protected right of Mr Brake to report was respected.
At the very least, the Premier could have made a public statement condemning Nalcor’s actions, but he is silent. Requests for information on what the government knew and when are read by the relevant people, but ignored. This isn’t simply a case of the province being ignorant of the facts; the government knows the facts and is actively choosing to hide them. Dwight Ball stood for election under the banner of openness and transparency, it is time he honoured his promise to the people of Newfoundland and Labrador.