Groups condemn ‘serious threat to press freedom’

Charges against N.L. journalist could set dangerous precedent, expert says


Published on March 24, 2017

Press freedom advocates are watching  as charges against Justin Brake, stemming from his coverage of protests at Muskrat Falls in October, move through the provincial court system.

Groups are sounding the alarm over the case, with Canadian Journalists for Free Expression calling the charges “a serious threat to press freedom” and “an outrageous assault on the public’s right to know.”

Brake, a reporter and editor with The Independent, followed a group who call themselves Labrador Land Protectors inside the site of Nalcor’s hydroelectric development in order to cover their activities while they occupied a workers’ camp.

When Nalcor Energy sought a court order to have the protesters removed from the site, Brake’s name was on the list. He left to avoid being arrested.

Along with a civil contempt charge stemming from that court order, Brake wound up facing two criminal charges — mischief over $5,000 and unlawfully disobeying an order of the court.

The RCMP laid those charges at the same time it charged 27 protesters following an investigation of the occupation.

It could earn Brake up to 10 years in jail, though it’s also possible he won’t face any imprisonment.

“The potential punishment, in one sense, is beside the point, because we’re talking about the question of press freedom and journalists being able to do their job unhindered by the law,” he told The Telegram this week.

“This seems to be an unprecedented case where the RCMP have intentionally pressed charges against me despite knowing that I was a journalist, and in spite of all the evidence that I was working as a journalist and didn’t do any damage or any harm to any property or any people or anything like that. My presence was solely as a journalist, and they’ve still decided to proceed in pressing charges.”

Lisa Taylor, a former CBC journalist and lawyer who teaches journalism at Ryerson, is among many advocates who say what happens in Brake’s case could set a dangerous precedent in Canada. She said the title of a new book she co-edited, “The Unfulfilled Promise of Press Freedom in Canada,” applies well to the situation.

“Journalists need to go where the story is, and if we believe, as the Crown and police and property owners are alleging here, that protesters entered the space illegally, it’s in the state’s interest just as much as it’s in the protesters’ interest that there is a journalist there to document what happens after an illegal act like this,” Taylor said.

“And that goes both ways. We need a journalist on the ground in case protesters are being deliberately destructive and are going beyond what we think of as reasonable democratic protest, and we also need a journalist on the ground if either the state or the owners of the property decide to push back with too much force against protesters.”

The presence of a journalist is also important for the public, she said, as it helps them have a fully formed opinion about the situation.

She said she was not surprised by the initial charge, but is taken aback by how far they’ve been taken.

“Often with authorities we see the charge first, consider later, because charging sends a pretty strong message. Where I’m really thrown by this is the idea that they’re proceeding with the charges,” she said. 

“The other message for journalists is that we have to protest, and we have to speak up because we’re not speaking up just for Justin Brake, we’re speaking up for our charter-entrenched role of providing information to the public.

“So whether it’s a Vice reporter being coerced into handing over confidential information, or whether it’s Justin Brake following a protest where the story takes him, a charge or conviction against Justin Brake, as far as I’m concerned, is a charge and conviction against all of us, because it will change the way we do business.”

 

Groups speak out

Numerous organizations across Canada and internationally have spoken out about the charges in recent weeks, including Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, which launched a petition called Journalism Is Not a Crime (http://www.cjfe.org/journalism_not_a_crime).

“This is an outrageous assault on the public’s right to know, and could cause a chill in reporting on controversies over resource development projects and Indigenous-led protests. It is essential that journalists be able to safely and freely cover events in the public interest, such as the occupation of Muskrat Falls, without fear of legal reprisals,” the organization says.

Likewise, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) released a statement expressing alarm.

“RSF strongly condemns the charges brought against a journalist who was merely doing his job covering an environmental protest of interest to the Canadian people,” Margaux Ewen, advocacy and communications director for RSF North America, is quoted as saying on the group’s website.

“It seems these legal proceedings are being used to intimidate journalists and prevent them from covering such events, which is the latest incident in a series of egregious press freedom violations in Canada.”

Carlos Lauría of the Committee to Protect Journalists has also released a statement: “Journalists have a duty to document events of public interest, including actions of civil disobedience and the response of law enforcement. Reporters who are doing their job do not have criminal intent and should not face charges. The charges against Justin Brake send a chilling message to Canadian journalists and should be dropped immediately.”

Other groups such as The Fahmy Foundation and The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press have spoken out against the charges. Brake is also getting support from the public; a crowd-funding page is helping with the legal fees, and a rally for press freedom will take place in downtown St. John’s Saturday at 1 p.m.

Brake’s next court date is in Happy Valley-Goose Bay on April 11.

 

Twitter: @TelyLouis