Premier promises greater protection of journalists, sidesteps call for inquiry

Stopping short of calling an inquiry, Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard says he will assemble a committee of experts to look into the protection of journalistic sources following revelations Montreal police have been spying on a journalist.

Quebec government to issue directive raising the bar on criteria to obtain search warrant for journalist

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard promised Tuesday to make it more difficult to obtain a warrant on a journalist. (CBC)

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard says he will assemble a committee of experts to look into the protection of journalistic sources following revelations Montreal police have been spying on a journalist. 

Stressing the importance of freedom of the press, Couillard said the expert group composed of a judge, police officers and journalists will be asked to come up with recommendations to ensure journalists can safely do their job.

Couillard also said the government will issue a directive to make it more difficult to obtain a search warrant that would target a journalist, raising the bar to a higher level – on par with lawyers and judges.

"We are dealing with a fundamental issue in a democratic society," he said Tuesday at a news conference in Quebec City, flanked by three members of his government, including Public Security Martin Coiteux.

Couillard did not address the specific case of La Presse journalist Patrick Lagacé, saying the matter is before the courts. 

Couillard's commitments fall short of the demands made by opposition parties at the National Assembly.

Earlier today, Parti Québécois Leader Jean-François Lisée called for Quebec's independent investigation bureau to look into the matter. Lisée​ said the actions taken by police show Montreal police Chief Philippe Pichet lacked judgment.

Jean-François Lisée wants an independent investigation into the surveillance of a La Presse journalist. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

"There's a lack of respect of journalist's independence," he said Tuesday, referring to the Montreal police service.

"They seem to reach for journalists' notebooks as soon as they're looking for something."

François Legault, head of the Coalition Avenir Québec, also called for an independent inquiry into the matter.

"I think right now there's a breach of confidence," he said. "Mr. Pichet must think about resigning."

In Ottawa, privacy commissioner Daniel Therrien told a House of Commons committee on Tuesday that Parliament has a role to play in instructing the courts on when to grant police a warrant to obtain sensitive data.

"This is a very worrisome issue," Therrien said under questioning at a meeting of the Commons information, ethics and privacy committee, which is conducting a review of the federal Privacy Act.

Union calls move 'totally unacceptable'

Montreal police Chief Philippe Pichet defended the service's actions at a news conference Monday. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Yves Francoeur, head of the Montreal Police Brotherhood, said he has worked under several previous police chiefs and "none of them would have acted like this."

Francoeur told CBC Montreal's Daybreak that spying on a journalist is "totally unacceptable" in a "free and democratic society."

The Montreal newspaper La Presse reported Monday that at least 24 surveillance warrants were issued for 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.

Crackdown on police speaking to journalists

If officers were the target, police should have made them the focus of the investigation — not journalists, Francoeur said.

At least 24 surveillance warrants were issued to track Patrick Lagacé's iPhone this year at the request of the police's special investigations unit. (CBC)
According to Francoeur, Pichet has made it clear in meetings that he wants to crack down on police who speak to journalists.

And he said he always told him the same thing: "It is symptomatic of an organization that is right now not well managed."

with files from CBC's Steve Rukavina and The Canadian Press