New York, March 17, 2017–Canadian authorities should immediately drop all charges against journalist Justin Brake, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. Brake is scheduled to appear in court on April 11 to answer charges of criminal mischief and contempt of court in connection with his reporting on a protest in the eastern Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador last year.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police on March 7 charged Justin Brake, a reporter with the Newfoundland and Labrador online newspaper The Independent, after he reported on a sit-in protest at the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project site in October 2016. Twenty-seven other people were charged alongside him. If convicted of both charges, Brake could face a maximum sentence of more than 10 years in prison.
Brake, who was nominated for a Newfoundland and Labrador 2016 Human Rights Award for his reporting on Muskrat Falls, told CPJ that he spent roughly five weeks in Labrador covering the response of the indigenous Inuit population to the $11 billion dam project, which opponents say could carry environmental and health risks. When protesters broke into the Muskrat Falls site, despite an October 16 injunction ordering them to stay off the property, Brake followed them.
“This happened spontaneously…I knew it was a huge story for our province and in Canada,” Brake told CPJ. “There is a constitutionally protected law of freedom of the press. In the moment I trusted that my constitutional right would be protected. I was not protesting; I was not doing any damage or harm.”
“Journalists have a duty to document events of public interest, including actions of civil disobedience and the response of law enforcement. Reporters who are doing their job do not have criminal intent and should not face charges,” said Carlos Lauría, the senior program coordinator for the Americas at CPJ. “The charges against Justin Brake send a chilling message to Canadian journalists and should be dropped immediately.”
Brake told CPJ that he carried a laminated press badge and that he had called the RCMP and Nalcor Energy, a provincial corporation under the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador developing the hydroelectric dam, for comment on the controversy over the dam. “There was no confusion over who I was or what I was doing,” he said.
Corporal Trevor O’Keefe, the media relations officer for the RCMP in Newfoundland and Labrador, told CPJ in a telephone conversation that the RCMP is aware that Brake was a journalist reporting from the site.
“We looked at it as an order in place that didn’t admit people onto the site…We conducted our investigation and there was a clear breach in that court order,” O’Keefe said. He added that the criminal “mischief” charge stemmed not from damage to property but from the fact that the protest prevented Nalcor Energy from using the property, causing them financial losses.
Brake is also facing a separate civil contempt charge after Nalcor Energy initiated proceedings against protesters. A court on October 24 approved the company’s application for a Contempt Appearance Order that named Brake among 22 individuals required to appear in court on the grounds that they had violated the earlier injunction. Brake told CPJ that he left the site after learning of the October 24 injunction.
Brake’s lawyer, Geoff Budden, told CPJ that he petitioned the court to vacate the October 24 order on the grounds that Nalcor Energy failed to inform the court that Brake was a working reporter.
On March 14, the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador denied the petition, finding that “Mr. Brake’s status as a journalist was not a material fact,” and that even if it were, the court would not vacate the injunction orders, according to a copy of the decision reviewed by CPJ. The next hearing in that case is scheduled for May 5, Budden told CPJ.
In a statement emailed to CPJ, Gilbert Bennett, Nalcor’s executive vice president for power development, told CPJ that Brake was treated “in the same manner” as the protesters.
“Mr. Brake was one of the people who entered and occupied the accommodations complex at the Muskrat Falls site in Labrador in October 2016. Mr. Brake was treated in the same manner as other individuals who chose to enter the site and take up occupation at the camp,” Bennett said.