Press freedom advocates are raising awareness about the plight of Justin Brake, a journalist who is facing unprecedented charges in Newfoundland, Canada, more than a year after he covered a protest at a construction site for a controversial dam.
Brake embedded with Indigenous demonstrators at the Muskrat Falls dam project in Labrador in October 2016. The protesters, who fear contaminants that could flow from the dam, violated an injunction by cutting through a lock on a gate and entering the project site. Brake followed them, livestreaming the action for several days.
For merely doing his job, the reporter is now fighting criminal and civil charges. Brake could face up to 10 years in prison in addition to fines and mounting legal fees.
“Whenever journalists face legal penalties for their work, there is a chilling effect on whether these public interest events and issues are reported on. The end result is that, in many cases, these stories simply won’t be told.” —Canadian Journalists for Free Expression
“This was me recognizing a major story and making a decision to cover it,” Brake told the Globe and Mail. “I didn’t think anybody would try to apply that injunction to me, recognizing that I was there as a reporter…I took comfort in knowing that we have press freedom enshrined in our constitution and this was a story.”
Brake added that his case has implications for journalists throughout Canada.
“I fear that journalists watching my case unfold might be influenced, might be deterred from following such stories. Regardless of whether or not I’m convicted in the end, the chill effect is huge,” he said.
Supporters so far have donated more than $6,000 to a legal defense fund for Brake.
“A case where a journalist is effectively charged with a criminal offense for what appears to be doing their job is something that should concern everybody,” Paul Schabas, a media and constitutional lawyer, told the Globe and Mail.
At Ricochet, Ethan Cox called Brake’s case “an affront to freedom of the press…an outrage and a misuse of the justice system.”
“But it’s also something else: desperately embarrassing for Canada, Newfoundland, and Labrador, and the reputation of our rule of law,” he added. “The prosecution of an on-the-job journalist whose work has angered the government cannot be tolerated in a free and fair society.”
Reporters Without Borders cited the charges against Brake when Canada dropped four places to number 22 in its 2017 World Press Freedom Index.
Canadian Journalists for Free Expression has called for the charges to be dropped.
“We firmly believe the charges against Brake could cause a chill in reporting on controversies over resource development projects and Indigenous-led protests,” the group wrote this month. “Whenever journalists face legal penalties for their work, there is a chilling effect on whether these public interest events and issues are reported on. The end result is that, in many cases, these stories simply won’t be told.”