With signs reading "Journalism Is Not A Crime" and "Free Justin Brake," about 60 people rallied in St. John's on Saturday afternoon, calling for charges against TheIndependent.ca editor to be dropped.
Brake has been charged with mischief exceeding $5,000 and disobeying a court injunction, as well as a civil contempt charge, stemming from an October 2016 protest at the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric site he covered for the online publication.
Brake accompanied a group of protesters, called the Labrador Land Protectors, as they moved their protest from public property into a workers' camp on site.
He stayed with the group as they occupied the site, demanding work on the project be stopped until the provincial government addressed their concerns over methylmercury levels in the Muskrat Falls reservoir.
Nalcor, the crown corporation that operates hydroelectric megaproject, obtained a court order Oct. 16 requiring the protesters and "any other persons found unlawfully occupying the project site" to leave.
Hans Rollman, anIndependent writer, told CBC that the charges against Brake have repercussions for press freedom across the country.
"Justin is facing charges for doing his job as a journalist," said Rollman. "It is something we should all be seriously concerned about, when Nalcor and the RCMP target journalists and file charges against them. … It would have national implications if journalists are told they cannot cover breaking news events."
The rally, held in front of the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador on Duckworth Street, saw several people speak in support of Brake and the Independent, which has organized a petition calling for the charges to be dropped and has launched a crowdfunding campaign to pay for legal bills.
Lindsay Batt, the Indigenous Students' representative for the Canadian Federation of Students in Newfoundland and Labrador, said the charges could have a chilling effect that would prevent coverage of minority or marginalized voices in the future.
"It's a really scary world to live in, because I think it'll set a precedent for press to not cross that line next time, to not follow the protectors in, and to stop covering all these, what people consider small stories," she said.
"People will be less likely to cover that story because they might face legal consequences. So it's a very scary thing to think about."
Brake's next court date is April 11, for a preliminary appearance for the criminal charges, and he's due in court in May for the civil charge.
Brake, speaking from Corner Brook, told CBC that his lawyer filed an appeal Friday of Supreme Court Justice George Murphy's ruling earlier this month that Nalcor had no obligation, when it applied for an injunction to remove the protesters, to inform the court that a journalist was on site.
Stories of significance on private property
"I'm a journalist who was doing journalism, and now I have to face these charges in court, and that is taking me away from my job. It's eating up valuable, precious resources, the small resources, the few that we have at the Independent, as a non-profit media outlet," he said.
"If there's a conviction here, and journalism is criminalized, when journalists have to tell stories of public significance on private property … that closes a lot of space in Canada where stories cannot be told, and it takes power away from journalists and therefore the public to know what is happening on private property, and property owners are often corporations who don't have great track records on human rights."