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Canada Journalist Justin Brake, charged over Muskrat Falls reporting, wins Press Freedom Award

Justin Brake reports from Muskrat Falls in Labrador in a photo from fall 2016.

Janet Cooper/CNW Group/Canadian Journalists for Free Expression

Justin Brake, a journalist who faces civil and criminal charges over his reporting about the impact of the Muskrat Falls hydro project on Indigenous people, has won the 20th annual Press Freedom Award.

Mr. Brake – who was working for the Newfoundland and Labrador online news site, The Independent, at the time he was charged – is being honoured on World Press Freedom Day.

The award is presented by the Canadian Committee for World Press Freedom in partnership with the Canadian Commission for UNESCO to a journalist or media organization that has done the most for media freedom in the preceding year.

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The Independent’s coverage, including Mr. Brake’s Facebook Live reporting, gained national attention and fostered debate about the contentious hydro project.

Honourable mentions this year went to Mike De Souza of the National Observer and to Charles Rusnell, Jennie Russell and Gary Cunliffe of CBC Edmonton.

The Spencer Moore Award for Lifetime Contributions was given to Charles Morrow, co-founder and director of the press freedom committee, who died in January.

Mr. Brake’s award was presented by Shawn McCarthy, president of the committee and a Globe and Mail reporter.

“Canadian journalists work in a country of relative freedom, but we still have to be vigilant because we sometimes witness glaring examples of that freedom being threatened and Brake’s experience is one of them,” Mr. McCarthy said.

Mr. Brake, who now works for APTN, said the threat of intervention can be daunting.

“It can be very lonely when you have the heavy hand of the state coming down on you,” he said.

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Mr. Brake faces charges of mischief and disobeying a court order after he entered the Muskrat Falls hydro project along with protesters in October, 2016. He also faces civil contempt proceedings in Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court, based on the same set of facts.

In a statement from his office, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau marked press freedom day Thursday by praising the media as “champions of accountability and the rule of law.”

“Canada will always defend journalistic freedom and stand against any violence, intimidation, censorship, and false arrests used to silence journalists,” Mr. Trudeau said.

“From international broadcasters that bring the world into our homes, to local newspapers that empower us to shape the communities we live in – we know that a free press helps build stronger and healthier societies.”

The statement comes, however, as the Canadian newspaper industry faces troubling times amid falling revenues. Newspapers have closed down and newsrooms are shrinking,

Last year, the House of Commons heritage committee issued recommendations on how to save the industry, including a five-year tax credit to compensate print outlets for a portion of their digital investments.

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The Trudeau government, however, has argued that the solution lies in the transition to modern digital platforms and developing more viable business models.

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