Quebec needs law to protect media from police spying, inquiry finds

Quebec needs better legislation to shield journalists from police surveillance techniques, which routinely gather more information than needed, a provincial commission of inquiry has found.

Commission also recommends province take steps to prevent political meddling in police affairs

The Chamberland commission was launched following the discovery La Presse columnist Patrick Lagacé was under police surveillance. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

Quebec needs better legislation to shield journalists from police surveillance techniques, which routinely gather more information than needed, a provincial commission of inquiry has found.

The commission into the protection of journalistic sources, headed by Justice Jacques Chamberland, also recommends the creation of a legislative firewall to prevent politicians from meddling in police investigations.  

Those are the two key recommendations contained in the Chamberland commission's final report, released Thursday in Montreal.

The commission was called last year to examine revelations that, since 2010, several journalists in the province were the subject of surveillance by various police forces, including the SPVM and the Sûreté du Québec.

In its report, the commission found five instances in which officers were able to obtain warrants that targeted journalists. These were part of internal affairs investigations into the leaking of confidential information.

But these investigations were often conducted with little oversight from supervisors, Chamberland concluded. This was especially problematic within the internal affairs division of the SPVM, where supervisions was "at best sporadic, at worst nonexistent."

(A separate government report released last week accused the SPVM's internal affairs division of numerous failures, including ignoring complaints against certain officers.)  

In conducting their investigations into leaks, police "routinely" gathered more information than they needed, including data from cellphone towers and complete call logs.

"It was a little bit like the investigators, seduced by the availability of the information, asked for it without really questioning whether it was useful in their particular case," Chamberland said in the report.  

The commission is being led by Jacques Chamberland, an appeals court judge with 45 years of experience. (CBC)

Privacy violations

The commission heard testimony that some of the warrant applications had included unfounded rumours about the personal lives of journalists.

"The evidence revealed a certain lack of sensitivity, knowledge and precaution from the investigators with regard to personal life issues raised by the use of certain investigation methods in the modern digital era," Chamberland writes in the report.

Marie-Maude Denis, an investigative journalist with Radio-Canada, had her incoming and outgoing calls tapped for five years by provincial police. That warrant application contained the false allegation that she was having an affair with a police source.

On Thursday, Denis said she was disappointed that the commission's final report soft-pedalled its criticism of police conduct.  

"I was kind of expecting that there would be stronger words to describe what happened," she said.

"I would have expected some sort of acknowledgement that something really bad happened, and that's not in the report."

Vallée looking into 'umbrella law'

Chamberland found that police forces in the province don't offer sufficient training for officers tasked with making warrant applications.

In order to protect the constitutional rights of journalists, Chamberland said, the Quebec government should consider an umbrella law that would reinforce their right to remain silent and keep documents from police.

Marie-Maude Denis, an investigative journalist with Radio-Canada, had her incoming and outgoing calls tapped for five years by provincial police. "I was kind of expecting that there would be stronger words to describe what happened," she said of Thursday's report. (CBC)

But this law, he added, should include provisions allowing the courts to overrule that right in order to prevent a "real injustice."

Quebec's justice minister, Stéphanie Vallée, said her ministry is looking into proposing such legislation.

Speaking to reporters after Chamberland delivered his findings, she said the report highlights a "need for a better legal framework to protect journalistic sources and tools."​

Earlier this fall, the federal government passed legislation guaranteeing the protection of journalist's source.

The law being proposed by Chamberland would see those protections extended to provincial civil and penal matters, and expand them to include journalists' documents, as well as their sources.

Protection from political meddling

The most explosive testimony heard during commission hearings this spring arguably came from then Montreal mayor Denis Coderre.

He acknowledged that he had phoned Montreal's police chief about personal information of his that appeared in a media report.

"I blew a gasket," Coderre said at the time, raising questions whether his call amounted to undue pressure on Montreal police.

In the ensuing investigation into the leak, Patrick Lagacé, a journalist for La Presse had his cellphone data monitored by police.

But Chamberland found that in none of the instances he reviewed was there any evidence of political interference in police operations.

Nevertheless, he said the absence of strict rules about police-politician interaction "can only pave the way to unfortunate misunderstandings."

Chamberland recommends that Quebec equip itself with a law that provides a clear framework for communications between police and the elected officials that oversee their work.

Former mayor Denis Coderre's testimony at the commission raised questions about the influence of elected officials on police. (Charles Constant / CBC)

Like Vallée, Public Security Minister Martin Coiteux said he plans to look into the legislation proposed by Chamberland.

"I think it's a good idea in general to preserve the independence … between elected officials and police services," Coiteux said Thursday.

Opportunity for shift in police culture

Montreal Coun. Alex Norris, who sits on the city's public safety committee, said he's "very satisfied" with Chamberland's report. 

"I would say the conditions are united at the moment to change the SPVM's culture," Norris said, noting this report is the second in two weeks to address concerns around police operations. 

Last week, former Montreal police chief Philippe Pichet was suspended after the release of former deputy justice minister Michel Bouchard's report looking into the SPVM's internal affairs.

"The evidence presented to us reminds everyone that nothing is quite black nor quite white," Chamberland said after the report was released. 

"Elected officials guide us, police protect us and journalists inform us. All those people play, individually and collectively, a fundamental role in our society, but not one has immunity."

About the Author

Jonathan Montpetit

Journalist

Jonathan Montpetit is a journalist with CBC Montreal.

With files from Angelica Montgomery, Sarah Leavitt