Journalist Justin Brake is facing up to 10 years in prison for covering the indigenous protests against the construction of the Muskrat Falls hydro plant in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Justin Brake, a journalist in Newfoundland & Labrador, is facing up to 10 years in prison for his coverage of the protests against & occupation of the Muskrat Falls hydro site by indigenous land protectors. His coverage of the Muskrat Falls protest put him on the shortlist of the N.L. Human Rights Commission for the 2016 N.L. Human Rights Award.
Brake has been charged with “mischief relating to a testamentary instrument or property greater than 5,000” and “unlawfully disobeying an order of the Court.” He has been summoned to provincial court in Happy Valley-Goose Bay to answer the charges on April 11, 2017.
On Oct. 22, 2016, following weeks of protests by Innu, Inuit and settler Labradorians on and around the Muskrat Falls site, land protectors cut the lock on the project’s main gate and proceeded down a dirt road to the main worker’s camp, where they remained for four days while demanding the project be halted until concerns around methylmercury contamination of their traditional waters and wild foods were adequately addressed.
This has sparked widespread condemnation from The Canadian Association of Journalists, the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, Reporters Without Borders, and dozens of other organizations and spokespersons for free press.
"This is a serious threat to press freedom," says 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."
The Muskrat Falls project will cut through unceded territory of the NunatuKavut Inuit, who are the only group of Inuit in Canada with an outstanding land claim, and has faced criticisms since its inception. However, with the studies about the potential for methylmercury poisoning that threatens locals’ food and way of life, protests against the project began to rise.
The Independent -- an independently owned and run news site -- has been critically covering Muskrat Falls megaproject since 2012. These are opinions and viewpoints that are often not covered in traditional news outlets, and are vital to the transparency required for a representative democracy to function.
It is the responsibility of journalists to document history as it happens and inform us of the details, but the actions of the court are an affront to that. The message is to be read loud and clear: telling the public about actions the state disagrees with is to be punished and discouraged.
Justice George Murphy has ruled that “Mr. Brake did not have any special status in this case because of the fact he is a journalist.”
But Mr. Brake is not just any journalist. He is an independent journalist, without the backing of a major company or financer. Journalists we desperately need right now. These actions -- by the RCMP, Nalcor, and the Justice -- isn’t just an attack on journalists, but specifically on independent journalists covering indigenous rights.
In the Canada’s Residential Schools: Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, there is explicit calls to actions for journalists in this country.
We call upon the federal government to restore and increase funding to the cbc/ Radio-Canada, to enable Canada’s national public broadcaster to support reconciliation, and be properly reflective of the diverse cultures, languages, and perspectives of Aboriginal peoples, including, but not limited to:
i. Increasing Aboriginal programming, including Aboriginal-language speakers.
ii. Increasing equitable access for Aboriginal peoples to jobs, leadership positions, and professional development opportunities within the organization.
iii. Continuing to provide dedicated news coverage and online public information resources on issues of concern to Aboriginal peoples and all Canadians, including the history and legacy of residential schools and the reconciliation process
The reason behind these calls to action is this:
In many countries where violence and injustice has occurred on a large scale, the media has had the potential to either fuel conflict or facilitate conflict resolution and peace building. The media play a critical role in educating the public, and through public scrutiny can hold the state accountable for its actions. In the Canadian context, the media can shape public memory and influence societal attitudes towards reconciliation
Justin Brake dared to report where journalists with public and corporate owned media was unable, or unwilling, to go. For days, Mr. Brake live streamed from the occupation, letting people across the province and world hear the voices of the indigenous people whose traditional hunting and fishing grounds would be impacted by this megaproject.
Mr. Brake, in performing this public service, is now facing up to 10 years in prison for upholding the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. He should be supported by all those at every level of our political spectrum, most of whom have fallen silent during this troubling time.
The Independent published concise reasoning for their coverage:
This problem was clear in the Muskrat Falls case. One of the criticisms some people made of the land protectors was the charge that they waited until the eleventh hour to do anything. In fact Labradorians have been protesting and raising concerns about the project almost since the day it was announced. But most media did not cover those concerns, instead focusing largely on the ‘big politics’ issues of who was running Nalcor and whether the provincial government would get billions of dollars in loans. This led to a perception that everyone was in favour of the project. With the exception of smaller media outlets like The Independent, opposition to the project was often ignored.
At this time, we urge everyone to not only condemn this action by signing the petition, and donating to his legal fund if you have money to spare, but take the time to read the reporting that has him facing prison time. Mr. Brake brought to the people of Newfoundland & Labrador, Canada, and the world, the voice of indigenous people and Labradorians at large who are so often voiceless in traditional media.
Elder Speaks out against Muskrat Falls, Innu leadership - October 3, 2016
“We’re willing to get arrested,” says protest organizer - October 6, 2017
“We...do not recognize your authority at Muskrat Falls”: Land Protectors - October 7, 2016
“They’re afraid of us,” land protector says of government on Muskrat Falls - October 12, 2016
Land protectors blockade Muskrat Falls - October 17, 2016
Nalcor injunction, arrests fuel movement to stop Muskrat Falls - October 17, 2016
Innu Nation wants flooding suspended as Muskrat Falls protest grows - October 24, 2016
Disclosure: Michelle Keep, Atlantic Director, occasionally writes unpaid opinion pieces for The Independent on an adhoc basis.