Justin Brake, reporter and editor with The Independent, has been cited by the Newfoundland and Labrador Human Rights Commission for his coverage of the Indigenous-led protests against Muskrat Falls.
On Tuesday the Commission announced that Brake, along with seven others from across the province, had been nominated for the 2016 Human Rights Awards.
Brake’s coverage of Muskrat Falls, which began in 2012 and culminated with on-the-spot reporting from an occupation of the Muskrat Falls workers’ camp by Indigenous land defenders in October, was cited as having raised awareness of Indigenous concerns and perspectives and having brought their voices to the province’s public.
“The committee was inspired by your courage to conduct journalism and tell the stories of the people affected by the Muskrat Falls project, despite the risks involved,” wrote Remzi Cej, Chair of the N.L. Human Rights Commission in a letter informing Brake of the nomination.
“Committee members commented on the importance of the Indigenous voices heard in your stories, as well as the voices of all other Labrador residents. Furthermore, your nomination has drawn further attention to your work, and it has been noted that your commitment to human rights is reflected in much of your writing.”
The committee was inspired by your courage to conduct journalism and tell the stories of the people affected by the Muskrat Falls project, despite the risks involved. — Letter from Remzi Cej, NL Human Rights Commission Chair
The Independent is a non-profit online publication covering provincial news and current affairs. While its predecessor was a print newspaper that operated from 2003-2008, in 2011 The Independent transitioned, under new management and editorial direction, to the online platform. In 2014 Brake took over ownership of the publication and turned it into a non-profit media outlet that now operates without corporate financial backing or government funding.
Robin Whitaker, a member of The Independent’s board of directors, said Brake’s work is a “testimony to the vital role of independent journalism in exposing the way power works, who it works for and who it hurts.
“His reporting in Labrador, when no other journalist was present, has raised fundamental questions for all of us in this province—about democracy, human rights, environmental justice and the nature of the relationship between Newfoundland and Labrador,” she continued.
“It shows why a truly independent media is crucial for this province, now more than ever.”
Brake said he was honoured by the nomination as it affirms the societal need for greater understanding and action on human rights, but that it also speaks to the state of journalism in the province and country.
“The fact that the Human Rights Commission is recognizing the journalism that we did may be a testament to our commitment to covering human rights issues—and we’re thankful for that and honoured to be acknowledged for our work as a news outlet—but it’s also a testament to the fact that what should be a standard in journalism is now rare,” he said.
“There’s enormous potential for journalism to be a catalyst for long term positive change in our province, and I think that if journalists have the ability to work without impediment, and if we’re true to our jobs and the nature of our profession, then we should be covering stories like [the Muskrat Falls resistance] everyday,” he said.
On Oct. 24, in the midst of Brake’s on-the-ground coverage of the land protectors’ occupation of the Muskrat Falls workers’ camp, crown energy corporation Nalcor Energy sought an injunction from the Supreme Court of N.L. that specifically named Brake as one of several individuals breaking a previous injunction that was aimed at those protesting the project.
Nalcor later admitted to media it lumped Brake in with the land protectors. The corporation did not identify the reporter as a journalist to Supreme Court Justice George Murphy in its affidavit and other evidence provided to the judge when seeking the Oct. 24 injunction.
The court order effectively interfered with exclusive coverage of a story of significant public interest, prompting national and international journalism organizations like Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Canadian Journalists for Free Expression and the Canadian Association of Journalists to speak out against what they perceive as an attack on press freedom in Canada.
“We are concerned that a journalist is being threatened with trespassing and contempt of court for merely doing his job covering an environmental protest of interest to the Canadian people,” said Delphine Halgand, Director of RSF’s Washington, D.C. bureau. “It seems these legal proceedings are being used to intimidate journalists and prevent them from covering such events, which is a serious violation of press freedom and access to information in Canada.”
The Independent recently launched a fundraiser to build a legal defense fund as well as continue its reporting of Muskrat Falls and other important issues in Newfoundland and Labrador.
“This award nomination speaks to the fact that there is not only a dire need for fiercely independent journalism in our province, but also it’s a testament to the kind of impact that good journalism can have,” said Brake.
“Journalism by definition and by its nature should have a positive impact on society. And in the case of the Muskrat Falls reporting, Indigenous people in our province who have been routinely dispossessed and actively oppressed—especially when they try to stand up for their rights and protect their food, their water, their communities and their way of life—were merely given a voice to a large audience for a few days,” he continued.
“That’s all The Independent did. And it turns out that when Indigenous people actually have a voice, a less colonially-biased voice, and aren’t just regarded as ‘protestors’ but people with specific concerns and rights, that others sympathize with them and understand what they’re fighting for. That’s all we did, and that’s why we’re being recognized. But this should be the norm in how journalism is done.”
Brake’s coverage of Muskrat Falls is ongoing, and he will return to Labrador for a court appearance on Jan. 25.
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