Journalists at centre of police surveillance scandal testify at Chamberland commission

Marie-Maude Denis, who is now host of Radio-Canada’s investigative program Enquête, took the stand first and spoke to her shock when she learned Quebec’s provincial police had been given access to her cellphone records between 2008 and 2013.

Radio-Canada's Marie-Maude Denis and Patrick Lagacé of La Presse latest to testify at public inquiry

Radio-Canada investigative journalist Marie-Maude Denis said sources need to be able to trust journalists, and police surveillance undermines that confidence. (CBC)

Two journalists at the centre of the controversy over police surveillance of media figures in Quebec testified Thursday that confidential sources are vital to their work, and to the health of democracy in the province.

Radio-Canada's Marie-Maude Denis and Patrick Lagacé of La Presse appeared Thursday before the provincial commission examining the issue led by Quebec Court of Appeal Justice Jacques Chamberland.

CBC/Radio-Canada is a participant in the commission.

Denis, who has been with Radio-Canada's investigative program Enquête since 2008, took the stand first and spoke of her shock when she learned Quebec's provincial police had been given access to her cellphone records between 2008 and 2013.

"I found it extremely intrusive — they describe my life in detail, where I was, what time, who I was talking to, what was happening ... I was looking at it line by line by line and after 20 minutes I stopped because I was too disgusted, too angry," she told the hearing. "They have my whole life for five years."

Police surveillance of journalists, she said, is nothing short of a threat to democracy.

"Investigative journalism is fundamental for a healthy democracy," she said.

Without confidential sources, Denis added, there is no investigative journalism.

Allegation of affair a 'calumny'

Denis refuted an allegation made in the police warrant requesting access to her phone records that she had been involved in an intimate relationship with Denis Morin, the former head of the Sû​reté du Québec squad investigating corruption in Quebec's construction industry.

That allegation was central to the request by the SQ's professional standards division, which was investigating how journalists obtained information from a police wiretap on Michel Arsenault, the former president of the FTQ, Quebec's largest labour federation.

Denis called the allegation that she was involved with Morin a "calumny."

"There's not an ounce of truth in that allegation and I find it really disgraceful for all police officers, investigators who care about the truth, that such calumnies are found in a judicial document," she said.

"It sends a clear message to current officers, retired officers or anyone who wants to become one — never speak with a journalist or, worse, a woman journalist, because you will be investigated as a criminal. You could find yourself in front of a commission of inquiry denying a relationship with a journalist — is that where we're at?"

Rumours in legal document serious concern

Denis said such rumours are often the reality for women who succeed in journalism, so she wasn't entirely surprised, but to see them written in a warrant was cause for serious concern.

"Seeing them in a legal document endorsed by a justice of the peace, I was shocked, overcome," she said.

"Putting fabrications like that in a legal document, that's serious — to me, to Denis Morin, to my husband. It's really not a situation that's acceptable."

Radio-Canada journalists Marie-Maude Denis, Alain Gravel and Isabelle Richer were tracked by the Sûreté du Québec over a five-year period. (Radio-Canada)

The warrant allowed the SQ to retroactively track the cellphone records of six prominent investigative journalists, including Denis's Radio-Canada colleagues Alain Gravel and Isabelle Richer.

In all, seven Quebec journalists are known to have been spied on by the SQ in an attempt to identify internal sources leaking information.

Lagacé's confidence in police shaken

In his testimony, Lagacé said his confidence in police has been shaken by the revelations that Montreal police were spying on his cellphone communications.

"Instinctively, I didn't think it was so easy to get a warrant targeting a journalist," he said.

The warrants were part of investigations by SPVM internal affairs investigators into a series of leaks to journalists, including a 2012 traffic ticket issued to Denis Coderre before he became mayor of Montreal that was passed along to Lagacé.

In testimony before the commission, Coderre admitted to being furious when he found out Lagacé obtained the ticket through "police sources" and asked if the mayor ever paid it.

Coderre said he called Marc Parent, the city's police chief at the time, to express his anger with the leak.

La Presse journalist Patrick Lagacé said his confidence in police has been 'shaken' by revelations that police had access to his phone records. (CBC)

Lagacé claimed the mayor's testimony was evidence of the Coderre administration's "paranoid" control of information, and he saw his own surveillance in that context.  

Lagacé echoed Denis' concern for the "chilling effect" surveillance could have on confidential sources.

"Without confidential sources, little journalism of value is possible," he said. "People accept speaking with journalists in exchange for a certain form of confidentiality in order to speak freely and pass along documents because they believe it's in the public interest."

For that reason, he said, it's vital to protect confidential sources.

Lagacé recommended that Superior Court of Quebec justices be the ones to hear warrant requests concerning journalists, rather than justices of the peace.

With files from Sudha Krishnan and Radio-Canada