La Presse columnist says he was put under police surveillance as part of 'attempt to intimidate'

Patrick Lagacé, a columnist for Montreal's La Presse newspaper, says Montreal police have been spying on him for months as part of an attempt to intimidate members of the police force who want to share information with journalists.

Police told Patrick Lagacé he was being used as 'tool' in investigation into its own officer, he says

La Presse columnist Patrick Lagacé said he was shocked to learn police had him under surveillance. (Marie-Ève Soutière/Radio-Canada)

A columnist for Montreal's La Presse newspaper says the city's police have been spying on him for months, as part of an attempt to intimidate members of the police force who want to share information with journalists.

Police obtained 24 warrants this year to track Patrick Lagacé's whereabouts using the GPS chip in his iPhone, and to obtain the identities of everyone he has spoken and messaged with, La Presse reported. 

I lived in this fiction that this could not happen in this country.— Patrick  Lagacé , La Presse  columnist

​Lagacé said police told him he was being used as a "tool" in an investigation into one of its own officers.

"I was flabbergasted because I thought that in this country it takes very, very serious motives to track and spy on a journalist like that — motives that are so serious that's it's never happened before," Lagacé said in an interview with CBC News on Monday.

"My metadata was transferred to the police. The police had the right to activate the GPS in my phone — to locate me at any time. I lived in this fiction that this could not happen in this country."

Lagacé added that he questions the judge's decision.

"What shocks me is that a judge decided this is perfectly normal in a democracy," he said.

"When we start spying on journalists … there are questions to be asked about who the judges are [who are] authorizing these warrants."

The revelations have raised concern among journalism advocacy groups and drawn the attention of anti-surveillance advocates, including NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

"Are you a journalist? The police spying on you specifically to ID your sources isn't a hypothetical. This is today," Snowden wrote on Twitter, referring to the story. 

'An exceptional situation': police chief

Montreal police Chief Philippe Pichet defended his department's actions, saying the tactic was necessary in order for police to investigate one of their own.

"This is an exceptional situation," Pichet said at a news conference Monday afternoon.

"This operation targeted one of our officers and not Mr. Lagacé …The SPVM [Montreal Police Department], and myself, we are very conscientious about the importance of respecting the freedom of the press. However, the SPVM also has the responsibility to carry out investigations on criminal acts – even against police officers."

Pichet added that no rules were violated in obtaining the warrants to track Lagacé.

Pichet spoke with reporters Monday afternoon. 0:39

"We respected every law to obtain the warrant we got. We followed the rules, and the judge authorized the warrant."

Pichet said investigators met with Lagacé last Friday "to explain the context in which we used this investigative technique for our investigation. We were not legally obliged to, but wanted to meet with him to explain what we were doing."

"I don't care about courtesy, I care about freedom of the press," Lagacé responded in an interview on CBC Radio One's Homerun moments after the police chief spoke out.

Pichet also would not rule out that police may be spying on other journalists. He said that "to his knowledge" no other journalists are currently the subject of warrants but he could not guarantee it.

'Judge shopping'

In one defence lawyer's view, the fact the warrants were issued at all may be a result of a practice called "judge shopping," whereby before going to court, lawyers and police make sure the sitting judge is one who is likely to authorize their requests. 

Jeffrey Boro told CBC Montreal's Daybreak the decision threatens the roles journalists and defence lawyers play in society.

"If journalists are not allowed to work without having these worries, not being able to get informants to tell them what's going on, it weakens our whole system," he said.

The Lagacé case comes a month after Quebec police targeted another journalist.

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.

'Very worrisome'

Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre said he was "preoccupied" by the situation, which he said cannot be taken lightly, but that he never meddles in police and legal matters.

"Democracy is fragile. We have to make sure we're protecting it, and one of the reasons why we have democracy is freedom of speech and freedom of press," Coderre said.

He said he spoke to police Chief Philippe Pichet about his concerns but did not ask for explanations.

Quebec's Public Security Minister Martin Coiteux called the situation "very worrisome," and commended La Presse for coming forward.

"[This] raises the debate of the independence of all the powers in our society — the political power, the judicial power, the police services and the independent press," he told reporters on Monday. "And all of theses things need to be respected and all of these things need to be defended." 

Coiteux said his office has started to look into the matter.

Montreal police did not immediately return a request for comment to CBC News.

Lagacé targeted as part of ongoing probe

Evidence that police were tracking Lagacé came to light when another reporter, Daniel Renaud, looked into a police investigation about anti-gang officers fabricating evidence — and Lagacé's name kept coming up, Lagacé said.

Lagacé said he met with police last Friday. The officers told him they had been monitoring officer Faycal Djelidi, one of the targets of their investigation, earlier this year and saw he and Lagacé had been in contact.

In the days following those calls, articles were published in the media about cases Djelidi had information about.

Investigators then opened another probe into allegations of breach of trust on Djelidi's part, and it was as part of that investigation that they obtained the warrants to monitor Lagacé, according to La Presse. 

Montreal police are believed to be cracking down on officers who act as sources for journalists.

"For a long time, the [Montreal police force] has been irritated by the fact that articles are being written about its internal affairs, on police operations or internal dysfunction," Lagacé said.

"I have done a few of those articles over the years. I'm convinced this is an attempt to intimidate everyone inside the police force who may want to talk to a journalist."

Lagacé said police told him the measure was exceptional. He and his colleagues couldn't find any precedent in Canada, he said.

Lagacé said he doesn't think he's above the law, but in a free society police should only be tracking journalists if they believe they've committed serious crimes.

La Presse lawyers in court

Sébastien-Pierre Roy, a lawyer for La Presse, was in court Monday morning to request that the phone numbers of any sources who contacted Lagacé while he was under surveillance aren't made public. 

The case will be back in court Nov. 24, when it is expected the warrants will be unsealed.

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