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Labrador columnist cut from newspapers over criticism of Nalcor and provincial government

By: | November 15, 2013

Award-winning journalist says editor of Labrador newspapers refused to run articles involving NL government and crown energy corporation; TC Media managing editor denies censorship

Michael Johansen. Submitted photo.

A Labrador journalist says his opinion column has been cut from two Transcontinental (TC) Media newspapers in Lab City and Happy Valley-Goose Bay after he disagreed with an editorial decision to omit from publication any of his articles that featured the provincial government and its crown energy corporation Nalcor as their subject matter.

In his syndicated weekly column, award-winning journalist and author Michael Johansen has persistently criticized the government and Nalcor for their handling of the controversial hydroelectric mega-dam at Muskrat Falls and the project’s environmental, economic, cultural and social consequences.

After one of his articles was deemed “too personal” and “a bit too gratuitous” by an editor at St. John’s daily newspaper The Telegram last month, Johansen explains, he submitted another piece for the same deadline, which The Telegram ran in its Oct. 26 edition. When he invoiced Labrador West paper The Aurora and Happy Valley-Goose Bay publication The Labradorian, which have been running his column for a number of years, Johansen says the editor for both papers, Bonnie Learning, told him she would no longer run any of his articles “that had anything to do with Nalcor and the provincial government,” he recalls.

“I wasn’t really thinking of it as censorship right away; to be honest I didn’t quite understand it,” says Johansen. “Maybe I’m a bit naive – it’s like if it is censorship I didn’t recognize it as censorship because it never occurred to me that an editor would actually engage in that kind of censorship.”

Johansen, who lives in North West River, says his initial concern was the loss of income from having fewer newspapers publishing his column. “And then I thought more about it and the implications for it started seeming a lot more sinister than just losing the money,” he continues. “But the whole mechanism of this kind of action…could influence me in how I write for all my papers.

“If I want to maintain my income at its current extremely low level, to stop it (from going) even lower, then I have to avoid what is now essentially 85 per cent of my subject matter, and it just started to sound ludicrous,” he says. “Then I realized it sounded unjournalistic, it sounded ridiculous – it was a ridiculous demand to ask of a political commentator.”

When contacted by The Independent on Thursday, Learning declined comment except to say it is “an internal human resources matter and I made the decision as the editor of the paper and that’s that.”

Learning – previously an assistant to former Progressive Conservative MHA John Hickey, who represented Lake Melville district and served as the Minister of Labrador Affairs under Danny Williams and Kathy Dunderdale – then referred The Independent to one of TC Media’s managing editors, Steve Bartlett, who works out of The Telegram newsroom in St. John’s.

“All I can tell you is this is a personnel issue and we’re not gonna really get into it, but I can say we don’t censor people who write for us. That’s all I can say, really,” Bartlett said Thursday.

Asked about his role with the Labrador papers, Bartlett said he “ultimately” oversees them but that they “are ran independently, or autonomously of me.” He said he does not review the papers’ content prior to publication each week and that the decision was made by Learning.

Mounting tensions and genuine concern

Johansen began his journalism career in the province at The Advertiser in Grand Falls-Windsor in 1989. He has since worked with CBC, NTV, the Canadian Press and for 15 years has been featured as a columnist in The Telegram, Western Star and other newspapers owned by TC Media, the Montreal-based media conglomerate that bought the St. John’s and Corner Brook dailies in 2002 and acquired 16 other community papers across the province in 2003. His new book, The Boy Who Walked: The death of Burton Winters and the politics of Search and Rescue, was released this week.

Last July he wrote an article which personified the crown corporation as a “noisy” new “neighbour” due to the light and sound pollution it brought to the Muskrat Falls area just outside Happy Valley-Goose Bay. He also drew attention to the fact that, despite Nalcor’s success in obtaining a court injunction that prohibits locals from accessing what the Innu and Inuit-Metis have claimed as traditional and ancestral lands, “fortunately,” he wrote, locals were travelling up the Grand River itself to the Muskrat Falls site.

A month later, following another article by Johansen that was critical of the crown corporation, Nalcor’s Lower Churchill Project Vice President Gilbert Bennett fired back in a co-authored letter to the editor published by The Labradorian, The Aurora and The Telegram in August, arguing Johansen’s July 20 column “encouraged members of the general public to breach the Muskrat Falls construction site with the intent of disrupting site activity.”

“This has serious safety consequences and is a violation of the law,” Bennett wrote, emphasizing “safety of our employees, workers, contractors and the general public,” as Nalcor’s top priority.

Johansen responded in his Aug. 31 column, elaborating on NL political blogger Uncle Gnarley’s Aug. 19 post that questions Bennett and Nalcor President Ed Martin’s qualifications for managing a resource development project of Muskrat Falls’ magnitude.

“The whole issue does touch me personally – that’s why I get passionate about it,” Johansen says, explaining his writing focus on Nalcor and the government’s handling of Muskrat Falls. “My cabin, which I’ve spent the last three years building on Stone Lake…it was just before they started building the Muskrat Falls dam, which was long before the sanction,” he says.

“They’re over 10 kilometers away over a few hills and I can hear them. I used to be able to hear the falls, now I hear machinery. And at night the whole horizon is lit up so bright you can hardly see the stars anymore. That disappoints me.”

Covering an issue that’s not going away

After writing about Quebec’s controversial Charter of Values and and Labrador tourist adventure seekers, Johansen turned his gaze back to Nalcor in early October with a satirical piece that addressed, in his opinion, the ludicrousness of a provincial law that prohibits anyone except Nalcor from producing and selling electricity.

“[F]orget drugs, guns, moonshine and cigarettes,” he wrote. “The real illegal money in this province is in positively-charged electrons. Anyone can generate them, but only one company (you guessed it — Nalcor, the government energy corporation) is allowed to sell them. The Government of Newfoundland and Labrador realized the only way Nalcor could earn enough money to pay for the $10-billion destruction of Muskrat Falls was to force consumers to buy all power from Nalcor and from Nalcor alone — no matter how high Nalcor raises rates.”

In response to Telegram Commentary Editor Peter Jackson’s feedback following the first submission of his Oct. 26 column, Johansen said he respects Jackson’s editorial insight and that he “accepted the criticism and accepted that they weren’t going to run that column.”

Johansen says the rejected column expressed his safety concerns regarding industrial traffic near the Muskrat Falls site.

“Nalcor’s been opening up quarries all over the place for this project and a few of them are on South Branch Road, and I just have safety concerns,” he explains. “There’s huge machinery that’s basically taken over the road, and there’s no flagmen or anything like that around to actually guide traffic. So if you can anticipate where a collision might occur between two vehicles, you know, it could be there. And I use that (road) a lot.”

When that column was nixed, Johansen wrote another piece titled “Time for an intervention”, which recalls an encounter with a reader who recommended he stop writing about Nalcor for a while and “take a vacation” to do some travel writing. After ranting about Nalcor’s pervasion of everyday life in his area, and how he wishes he could stop writing about them, Johansen concluded: “A vacation, I thought … somewhere where there’s no Nalcor. Now, that’s a nice suggestion.”

Telegram and Western Star editors ran the piece, but Johansen says this is when Learning notified him of her editorial decision.

“To go that step further and to ban (me from writing about) not only Nalcor but the provincial government – a blanket ban – it offends me on a professional and on a democratic level,” he says. “That’s not how this business is supposed to work.”

A creative demonstration of acceptable and unacceptable editorial content

Still, Johansen kept Learning’s decision to himself, opting instead to write a humorous piece, with hidden irony, about a bear who drinks coffee and defecates in the woods.

“It was published and I got some nice compliments about it, from Bonnie as well,” he recalls. “She thought it was exactly what she was looking for: fun piece, entertaining, nothing controversial – just hijinks in the woods, we’re all happy animals together out here in the wilderness.

“By writing it and having her publish it and compliment me on it allowed me to say to her, which I actually haven’t done, but I guess you will through your (story): insightful political commentary, bad. Bears eating shit, good.”

Johansen’s next article, slated for publication on Nov. 9, amplified Nunatsiavut Health and Social Development’s emergency call for blankets to address the homelessness problem in Happy Valley-Goose Bay. Toward the end of the article Johansen references a 2007 report (“Happy Valley-Goose Bay Community Plan for Addressing Homelessness and Transitional Housing”) that claims the influx of workers to the Voisey’s Bay nickel mine “increased the demand for rental housing,” and that, “Similarly, the anticipated Lower Churchill hydro project is expected to increase employment through its construction phase and create a further demand for housing in the future.”

Johansen made no mention of Nalcor or the provincial government but says he suspected linking homelessness in Happy Valley-Goose Bay to the two large scale resource development projects nearby would be problematic for Learning if she was to uphold her new rule for his articles. He was right; the column did not appear in the Labrador newspapers.

“I hear about this appeal for blankets from Nunatsiavut’s health department, and homelessness is a thing I’ve written about before and it’s a subject that I take interest in on a personal level, having been there, so it’s a subject I would have written about in any event whatsoever,” Johansen explains.

“The 2007 Lichen (Group) report … pointed out that the problem would only get worse from 2007, a time when the rents were $600. The whole homelessness problem involves Muskrat Falls, and there would be no way to avoid mentioning it in the story without looking like I was avoiding the subject,” he says.

“It’s not my job to avoid controversy.”

Facebook lights up with angry responses to perceived censorship

When Learning refused to run the article, Johansen decided to share his predicament on Facebook. Within 48 hours his initial post, a status update, was shared 80 times and prompted significant commentary.

“I expected a response (but) I didn’t expect this level of response,” he says, remarking about the number of comments on his Facebook page.

“[B]ecause he spoke too much about Nalcor, Muskrat, and the flaws of this NL Government.. Michael Johansen you have been greatly wronged my friend..You speak many times what most of us locals are feeling, the fact that they would censor tells me how wrong Labrador is being treated on all fronts,” one commenter posted. “We need to spread the word that censorship is happening and it must be stopped!”

“This is disgusting and should not be tolerated by any of us,” said another. “Let’s spread this story on twitter and facebook until they reconsider this move.”

A friend of Johansen’s commended his decision to go public with the dilemma: “I am glad your sense of justice, honour and fairness are not for rent, let alone be available to purchase.”

Johansen’s moral objection has come at a cost, he says.

“Now that I’ve taken a stand my salary’s been cut.”

Johansen’s column appears in The Weekend Telegram and Western Star each week.

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