Surveillance of La Presse reporter a 'serious attack on freedom of the press in Canada'

The case of a Montreal newspaper columnist whose smartphone was tracked by Montreal police is part of a troubling trend emerging in Quebec and across the country, freedom of expression advocates say.

Questions raised after columnist Patrick Lagacé surveilled by Montreal police with 24 separate warrants

At least 24 surveillance warrants were issued for Patrick Lagacé's phone this year at the request of the police's special investigations unit. (CBC)

The case of a Montreal newspaper columnist whose smartphone was tracked by Montreal police is part of a troubling trend emerging in Quebec and across the country, freedom of expression advocates say.

La Presse reported Monday at least 24 surveillance warrants were issued for Patrick Lagacé's iPhone this year at the request of the police special investigations unit. That section is responsible for looking into crime within the police force.

The warrants were used to track Lagacé's whereabouts using the GPS chip in his iPhone. The warrants also allowed police to obtain the identities of everyone he spoke to or exchanged text messages with during that time.

"The new powers that the police have to surveil Canadians are absolutely horrifying, they're basically limitless, there's very little oversight, and when that happens the system will be ripe for abuse, and this is just an example of how it's abused," said Tom Henheffer, executive director of Canadian Journalists for Free Expression.

"What's even more worrying about it is the fact that this is a justice of the peace who actually authorized this."

It's part of a "culture shift" among law enforcement and judges that began with the passing of Bill C-51 under the previous Conservative government, he said. ​Henheffer pointed to other recent cases where law enforcement has been spying on journalists or fighting for them to turn over the names of anonymous sources in court.

It is unprecedented. The police have issued search warrants against media outlets in the past, but nothing as far ranging as this one.- Mark Bantey , media lawyer

In September, the Sûreté du Québec seized Journal de Montréal reporter Michael Nguyen's computer because they believed he illegally obtained information cited in a story he wrote.

At the same time, the RCMP has been trying to get a reporter from Vice News to hand over background materials used for stories on a suspected terrorist.

Last May, CBC News revealed that a rogue group of Mounties investigating the leak of a secret document spied on two Canadian journalists for more than a week without any authorization.

The Liberals pledged to change "problematic" parts of bill C-51 in the 2015 election, but have yet to move on the legislation that seems to have triggered the culture shift.

Police motives called into question

In this case, Lagacé said police told him they obtained the court-authorized warrants because they believed the target of one of their investigations was feeding him information.

But he said the story in question was actually first reported on by a competitor, leading him to believe the investigation was actually a thinly veiled attempt to learn the identity of his sources within the police department.

Montreal police Chief Philippe Pichet speaks to the media about the tapping of a newspaper reporter's smartphone on Monday. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)
"To me, this was a great pretext to try to investigate a reporter who has done numerous stories in the past that have embarrassed the service,'' he said.

"This is a big thing in a country like Canada. Police were permitted to spy on a journalist under very, very thin motives on a secondary part of a criminal investigation.''

Montreal police Chief Philippe Pichet said Monday that investigators never violated any rules.

"We respected every law to obtain the warrant we got. We followed the rules, and the judge authorized the warrant," he said during a news conference.

Pichet also said the measures were necessary because it was an "exceptional situation."

"We are very conscientious about the importance of respecting the freedom of the press. However, the [Montreal police] also has the responsibility to carry out investigations on criminal acts – even against police officers."

'Drastic measures'

Mark Bantey, a Montreal media lawyer, said the revelations are "shocking."

Mark Bantey, a Montreal media lawyer, says the warrants approved to monitor a La Presse journalist are 'unprecedented.' (CBC)
"I was stunned because the police obviously took the very drastic measures to obtain the source of information. I think it's shocking actually. I think it's a serious attack on freedom of the press in Canada," Bantey said.

"I have never seen anything like this in the 35 years I have been practising media law. It is unprecedented. The police have issued search warrants against media outlets in the past, but nothing as far-ranging as this one."

Bantey said a justice of the peace should be "extremely cautious" when a search warrant is aimed at a journalist or media outlet.

The Supreme Court has ruled that a justice of the peace not only has to consider the usual criteria — whether there are reasonable grounds to believe that the measure will afford evidence of the commission of a crime — but also has to be satisfied that "there are no other sources of information available to the police," Bantey said.

Chill on anonymous sources

Stéphane Giroux, a spokesman for the Quebec professional journalists' federation, said the latest instance is one of the more serious attacks the organization has seen on freedom of the press in recent years.

Giroux said when sources contact journalists, they expect to remain anonymous. But this news may make people who try to come forward with stories mistrustful of journalists.

"If they can do it to Patrick Lagacé, they can do it to anyone," he said.

In an open letter published Tuesday, Radio-Canada bureau chief Michel Cormier denounced the police force's tactics.

The letter was co-signed by many of the province's top media outlets, including La Presse, Le Devoir and the Montreal Gazette.

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story said that Patrick Lagacé's phone was tapped. In fact, police obtained warrants to track his whereabouts using the GPS chip in his iPhone and obtain the identities of everyone he has spoken with and messaged.
    Nov 01, 2016 9:22 AM ET

with files from Jessica Rubinger, Ainslie MacLellan and The Canadian Press

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