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Press freedom a prerequisite for the just and democratic rule of law

By: | November 8, 2016

Journalists ought to defend freedom of the press, not encourage its restriction.

Hans Rollmann
To Each Their Own examines political issues impacting Newfoundland and Labrador.

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On Oct. 22 Independent reporter Justin Brake followed the story when around 60 land protectors stormed the main gate of the Muskrat Falls hydro project in Central Labrador and occupied the workers' camp. Brake's reports from inside the camp were viewed and read by tens of thousands of people across Canada and was the only reliable source of information available to the public for four days, until Brake was named on a Supreme Court of N.L. injunction granted to Nalcor which posed the threat of possibly severe legal and financial penalties. Photo by Justin Brake.

In a recent column for The Telegram TC Media’s Russell Wangersky came out swinging against, surprisingly, freedom of the press.

His target was the editor of this publication, Justin Brake, and Brake’s decision to cover the occupation of the Muskrat Falls workers’ camp last month by reporting at the scene of the event, as opposed to staying behind the line where a court order obtained by Nalcor told people to stay.

Brake faced a classic reporter’s challenge: follow a breaking story of vital public interest and concern, or follow the instructions of authorities who were acting in such a way that would have deprived the public of obtaining crucial information.

There is no doubt the storming and occupation of the Muskrat Falls camp was a historic occasion in this province. There is also no doubt that the broader public would have known very little about it—perhaps nothing—had a journalist not been there broadcasting from the scene and sharing information with other media outlets too.

The right to know is sometimes treated, in this day and age, as a voyeuristic pleasure. It is far more important than that. If we do not know what is happening around us—why Labradorians and Indigenous Peoples are marching outside Nalcor’s gate, what reasons compel them to occupy the workers’ camp and how they conduct themselves when they are there—our democratic society cannot function properly.

We must be able to judge the actions of our political and business leadership, and the actions of our neighbours as well. We must not sit silently on the sidelines and grumble to our co-workers about the way our society functions; we must speak up and make ourselves part of that public discussion which helps shape the way our society functions.

Freedom of information and the public’s right to know—which are the product of freedom of the press—lies at the core of our democratic system and all the civil rights on which it is based. It is that freedom to know and freedom to report that produces good governance, and that produces a healthy and democratic society.

Brake acted on his instincts as a journalist, followed the story and broadcast live from the site of the spontaneous occupation. As a result he was named in a court order and is now facing financial, and potentially legal, consequences.

The fact Brake was named in the court order has been denounced by media outlets and journalists’ rights organizations across the country as an attack on freedom of the press—on the right to free expression and the public’s right to know.

But it has not been denounced by most media establishments in this province.

Instead, Wangersky devoted a column to arguing that Brake—and by extension, any journalist—should second-guess themselves, and when the public right to know comes up against other rights, the journalist should back down and let those other rights take precedent.

It’s sad to hear a journalist so quick to encourage other journalists to back down when they’re told to stay away from a story, and not report first-hand on events that the public has a right to know about.

Yes, the events occurred on Nalcor land, but Nalcor’s land is also Indigenous land, and land that is also part of a democratic country that respects civil liberties, including freedom of the press and the public’s right to know, especially when it comes to serious issues that shape and define our very existence as a democratic province.

Wangersky offers two analogies in his column, and they are disingenuous ones.

First, he compares Brake to Fraser March, the union leader who refused to obey a court injunction on picketing. The analogy is surprisingly far-fetched and flimsy for Wangersky’s normally sharp mind. March was a union leader pursuing a political agenda; Brake is a reporter upholding the public’s right to know about what is happening in their own backyard. And if you believe the public does not have a right to know what happens in our province, then you ought to question why it is you choose to live in a democratic country.

There are other places you can go where civil rights do not come first, and where enough money can indeed buy you impunity and silence. Russia, for instance, or perhaps China. But Canada is supposed to be a democracy, and democracy relies on the public’s right to know, which is guaranteed by the freedom of the press to report on all matters of public interest. All matters of public interest, mind you—not just those that Crown corporations invite them to.

Wangersky employs another irrelevant analogy. He asks if a journalist rushing to cover a story should go over the speed limit. The answer, generally speaking, is no, because doing so would endanger lives. But Brake did not endanger any lives by following Labradorians through the Nalcor gate. If anything, his presence enhanced public safety by allowing everyone on the outside—including the RCMP and families of land protectors and workers—to know what was happening on the inside.

The analogies are ridiculous, but so is the sorry sight of a journalist defending restrictions on journalism.

Yes, there are limits to freedom of the press. But let those limits be established by intelligent discussion and ethical debate on the part of an informed public, not by the government-backed dollars of an energy corporation which has so far excelled only at keeping people in the dark.

Wangersky is an excellent writer who is normally not afraid to challenge power and the possible abuse thereof. We must hope his commentary comes from some sentiment other than sincerely held opinions.

The Telegram has some excellent journalists on staff, and if one of them happened to be cited in a court order for following a story of critical importance, we would hope Wangersky would fight tooth and nail to defend his writers, not lecture them on why they should have turned their back on the story in the first place.

Reporting doesn’t make you exempt from the rules of our society—it means you are using the rules of our society in the public interest.

The fact is, a journalist cannot second-guess themselves in a situation like the Muskrat Falls occupation. If you don’t act on the moment to catch the story, you miss it; and it’s possible the public will never know. A journalist needs to know that the democratic rule of law will uphold their decision to cover a story and inform the public.

It’s deeply troubling to hear a journalist defend restrictions on the practice of journalism, because there are plenty of other people out there willing to do the dirty job for him: greedy corporations, crooked politicians, rich folks with more dollars than sense who would prefer to buy public silence than face accountability for their misdeeds.

Yes, there are plenty of other people willing to attack freedom of the press; the press shouldn’t be among them.

Last year I interviewed Joel Simon, Executive Director of the US-based international organization Committee to Protect Journalists. Simon had just published a book on press freedoms, and he declared that “the battle for freedom of expression is the defining struggle of this moment.”

“Journalists are increasingly threatened precisely because governments and other powerful institutions are finding it more difficult to manage and manipulate information,” he writes in his book. “They are lashing out as a result.”

Free expression needs to be strengthened, not restricted at the behest of governments and corporations, he says. There ought only to be one restriction that trumps press freedoms, and that’s incitement to violence. There was no incitement to violence in Brake’s reporting from Muskrat Falls; if anything, it dispelled myths that those occupying the site were violent or dangerous, and perhaps increased everyone’s safety as a result.

In closing, Wangersky asks: “Does simply calling yourself a journalist…allow you to bear witness and exempt you from the rules that apply to every other citizen?”

The answer is obviously no — but Wangersky is asking the wrong question.

As a democratic society, freedom of expression, which includes the constitutionally-protected freedom of the press, is one of the most fundamental rules that applies to all of us. Reporting doesn’t make you exempt from the rules of our society—it means you are using the rules of our society in the public interest.

Anyone who wants to judge the calibre of Brake’s journalism is welcome to read his stories and make their own determination. Part of living in a democratic society is the right to make our own judgements about what we believe. But for us to exercise that right, first we need the information to make an informed judgement.

And protecting the rights and freedoms of those who bring us that information ought to be of paramount importance for all of us.

Hans Rollmann is an editor, writer, researcher and organizer with a penchant for chocolate and a knack for limericks.

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