The Independent strongly condemns the criminal charges brought against journalist and Independent reporter/editor Justin Brake on March 7 for his reporting from the Indigenous-led occupation of the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project site in Labrador last fall.
On March 8 Brake was summoned to appear in provincial court in Happy Valley-Goose Bay April 11 on charges of mischief exceeding $5,000 and disobeying a previous Supreme Court of N.L. injunction prohibiting people from entering or blocking access to the site. According to a March 7 RCMP press release the charges stem from an RCMP investigation into activities at the Muskrat Falls site last October and are among a total of 60 charges laid against 28 individuals.
“These criminal charges, which carry a penalty of up to 10 years in prison, are not only an attack on The Independent for doing important journalism,” says Brake, “they also amount to an attack by the RCMP on press freedom in Canada.
“In light of the revelations last year of police surveillance of journalists in Quebec and Ontario, these new charges deliver yet another blow to the integrity of Canada’s police agencies, including the RCMP, when it comes to protecting, not hurting, press freedom,” Brake added. “They should be withdrawn immediately. If they are not, we will fight them vigorously in court.”
On Oct. 22, 2016, following weeks of protests by Innu, Inuit and settler Labradorians on and around the Muskrat Falls site, land protectors cut the lock on the project’s main gate and proceeded down a dirt road to the main worker’s camp, where they remained for four days while demanding the project be halted until concerns around methylmercury contamination of their traditional waters and wild foods were adequately addressed.
Throughout the protests land protectors maintained their actions were in self-defence, and that Nalcor Energy, the crown corporation in charge of the project, and the provincial and federal governments were not respecting their Indigenous rights and human rights.
Brake was the only journalist to cover the story from inside the occupied camp, bringing information of local, national and international importance to tens of thousands of readers and viewers.
On Oct. 24 Brake was named on a new court order compelling authorities to arrest him if he did not leave the Muskrat Falls site. Brake left the site and currently awaits Supreme Court of N.L. Justice George Murphy’s decision regarding whether or not Nalcor had an obligation to inform the court, when it applied for the injunction on Oct. 23, that Brake was on the Muskrat Falls site as a working journalist.
The approximately 40 land protectors, including elders, youth and clergy, left the site on Oct. 26, after the premier held an emergency meeting with Labrador’s three Indigenous leaders and acceded to demands laid out by three hunger-striking Inuit artists and youth.
In December Brake was shortlisted by the N.L. Human Rights Commission, an agency of the provincial government, for the 2016 N.L. Human Rights Award in recognition of his work covering the Muskrat Falls protests.
He fears that if he is convicted of a civil or criminal offence due to the charges precipitated by Nalcor or the RCMP, the consequences would be devastating for journalism in Canada.
“If journalists fear their constitutional rights will not be recognized and respected by corporations, governments or police, then they will hesitate to cover stories such as this, a scenario that presents a bleak outlook for journalism in Canada.”