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Press freedom a “cornerstone of a healthy democracy”

By: Stephan Walke, Lindey Touzel, Connor Curtis, Kyle Curlew, Meghan Bush | March 23, 2017

From Concerned Youth of Newfoundland and Labrador: An open letter in support of Justin Brake and the role of good journalism in a turbulent future.

The charges brought against Independent journalist Justin Brake for mischief and disobeying a Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court injunction while covering the Indigenous-led Muskrat Falls protests this past fall have garnered international interest.

And so they should. Advocates of press freedom are speaking out against the Nalcor led legal action which has become the latest case in which independent media coverage of Indigenous-led protests are being quashed.

We, a group of Grenfell Campus, Memorial University students and young alumni, are adding our voices to the growing opposition against these charges. Moreover, we are opposing what these charges represent not only for journalism, but for youth entering and shaping what is to be our future.

What follows is a letter of support for Justin Brake, the work he has done and what it represents. It is also a call to action from a generation inheriting a politically and socially polarized world in which truth and information are used, misused, and manipulated in often dangerous and undemocratic ways.

For many students in the province, and for those of us writing this letter, it was evident that our education and our developing understanding of the world were not simply theoretical, out there concepts. What we read in our textbooks, we saw reflected in our local communities. Most specifically, environmental issues such as oil and gas development in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, proposed fracking developments on the west coast of Newfoundland, and the development of Muskrat Falls (to name a very few). Such issues have a localized and acutely felt importance which, when examined thoroughly, have relevance on a much larger scale.

The same can be said for any number of social justice issues or economic and political concerns felt in this province. Indigenous identity in Newfoundland and the handling of the Qalipu Nation membership, the cutting of important programs at College of the North Atlantic, threats to university students in the form of tuition hikes, and austerity measures in the province that threaten the literacy and health of vulnerable people are all important issues that have greater relevance. But these issues require scrutiny, a voice and a platform. They need a dedicated journalist to bring them to life as stories. Enter Justin Brake and The Independent, who by continuing to report on these stories, show the necessary role of investigative journalism on a local level. 

What good journalism should do is provide accurate and comprehensive information about important, developing stories. These stories must be accessible to everyone so that we, citizens of a democratic country, can be well-informed when participating in our civic society. Justin Brake’s coverage of the Muskrat Falls protests and occupation was second to none. His live coverage reached thousands and the extent of his reporting made this coverage a central source of a vital story.

The story Brake was covering at the time of his summons to court was of historical  importance.

We would like to note, as Brake has also done, that this was a demonstration which saw Innu, Inuit and white settler populations standing side-by-side, perhaps for the first time in recent Labrador history, united in a single cause. Colonization and exploitation of Indigenous Peoples is happening around the globe congruently with Canada coming to terms with its histories and trying to adapt reconciliation. The story Brake was covering at the time of his summons to court was of historical importance. 

The Muskrat Falls story, which Brake and other writers at The Independent have been reporting on for some time, is one among many which either had no other voice in the province, or received only one-sided coverage from other media outlets.

As students at Grenfell, it was partly The Independent’s interest in stories developing locally (see hyperlinks above) which legitimized our concerns and gave us a mirror to reflect on the immediacy and the context of what was happening around us. In turn, we began our own, small and independent print publication focused on giving an alternative voice to folks living on the west coast of the province. We called it the 4 O’Clock Whistle, and Justin took an interest in what we were trying to do because he understood the importance of providing alternative voices, no matter how small the platform. We need to be able to see ourselves and our immediate and broader realities in ways that are nuanced and complex, in ways than cannot be fit into 140 characters or swiped past on our news feeds. 

To see the case of Brake’s charges in a larger media context, a recent Public Policy Forum (PPF) report on the state of media in our country is forebodingly and aptly titled “The Shattered Mirror”. Things are looking grim. More than 200 Canadian newspapers have been closed or merged since 2010.

The PPF report points to nationwide slashing of staff and resources at media organizations, which generally means amalgamated newsrooms and less investigative pieces being developed on the ground. Indeed, the recommendations from the report include proposals for a new “local mandate ensuring there are more journalistic boots on the ground.”

In addition, recommendations include an “Indigenous journalism initiative to put more resources into communities and governments that are often overlooked.”

Anyone coming to mind that has shown the tenacity to combat these media shortfalls?

As it stands, charging a journalist in a provincial court for doing nothing more than bringing to light an important Canadian story is a disturbing breach of healthy democratic participation. As young people and as students, we are witnessing the institutions of this province and country (the RCMP, the provincial crown energy corporation Nalcor, and the provincial courts) actively quashing the public’s right to information. 

Charging a journalist in a provincial court for doing nothing more than bringing to light an important Canadian story is a disturbing breach of healthy democratic participation.

These charges against Brake bring into question the very instruments of democracy that brought light to our actions in our own communities and campuses, the very mirror which legitimized our concerns as being real and worth knowing about. 

While the provincial court and some mainstream media sources are focusing on the particularities of Brake entering a gate whose lock was cut and walking on Nalcor property, they lose sight of the story’s context. As a result, debates end up being about trespassing on private property and not about Indigenous sovereignty, histories of colonialism, and a journalist simply documenting an important act of civil defiance.

If it weren’t for Brake’s footage of a peaceable group of occupiers sitting around, drinking tea and chatting amiably with Nalcor employees (many of whom were friends and relatives of the occupiers), this story could easily have been painted as another group of violent, angry Indigenous people causing mischief and hindering development. 

Journalistic freedom, and more broadly, freedom to pursue and report on the truth, is a cornerstone of a healthy democracy. We are not reporters, so we are not facing tough questions about whether or not to follow history through an open gate and keep the camera rolling. We are not faced with fear about losing our jobs and livelihoods over a story that could be traded for an easier piece of click-bait which wouldn’t require a plane ticket to the remote north. But, we are young people in Newfoundland and Labrador with a vision of what a healthy democracy should look like. This vision includes informed citizens, thoughtful debate, and access to all information from all sides.

Holding to this desire, we are calling for all charges against Brake to be dropped and for constitutional rights and press freedoms to be upheld.

For anyone wishing to help financially support The Independent and aid in Brake’s legal fees, please go to www.defendtheindy.com.

As well, we urge you to sign Canadian Journalists for Free Expression’s petition calling on Jody Wilson-Raybould (Minister of Justiceand Attorney General of Canada) and Frances Knickle (QC, Director of Public Prosecutions, Newfoundland and Labrador) to drop all charges against Brake: “Journalism In Not A Crime”.

Sincerely,

Stephan Walke
Lindey Touzel
Connor Curtis
Kyle Curlew
Meghan Bush

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