6 reporters spied on by Quebec provincial police

Quebec provincial police confirm that six members of the press were spied on in 2013 as part of a police investigation that was launched following a complaint from a union boss.

Cellphones of journalists tracked in 2013 following complaint from union boss

Isabelle Richer and Marie-Maude Denis, hosts of Radio-Canada's investigative program Enquête, both say their phones were tracked by Quebec provincial police. (Radio-Canada)

Quebec provincial police confirm that six members of the press were spied on in 2013 as part of a police investigation that was launched on the same day that a labour union boss filed a complaint.

Three Radio-Canada journalists said they found out today, via unnamed sources, that the Sûreté du Québec was tracking their portable phones. This comes just days after a Montreal newspaper columnist said he was similarly tracked by that city's police force. 

Marie-Maude Denis and Isabelle Richer, the current hosts of the investigative program Enquête, as well as the show's former host Alain Gravel, said this afternoon that provincial police were tracking their incoming and outgoing calls and texts.

"I've just learned that my incoming and outgoing calls have been spied on by the Sûreté du Québec in 2013," Denis tweeted in French.

"My turn to get a confirmation that I was targeted by court mandates to obtain a log of my calls by the SQ," Gravel said.

"Surreal … The SQ spied on my cellphone following a formal complaint made by Michel Arsenault in 2013," Richer tweeted.

Journal de Montreal crime reporter Eric Thibault was also under surveillance, as was La Presse's National Assembly bureau chief Denis Lessard. Another journalist, whose name hasn't been released, was also monitored.

Surveillance prompted by complaint

Arsenault's name came up a number of times at the Charbonneau Commission when, in 2013, the province's anti-corruption inquiry turned its attention to unions.

The then-president of Quebec's Federation of Labour (FTQ) came under fire after witnesses testified that Arsenault was aware of alleged links between some union leaders and organized crime but did nothing about it.

He had also been involved in a legal battle with the commission over wiretaps of his phone conversations, gathered by police in an investigation unrelated to the anti-corruption inquiry.

Arsenault sent a letter of complaint to the SQ after news that he was the subject of a police investigation was being made public.

"Michel Arsensault was under scrutiny at the time. He was upset, so he complained to the SQ, which forced police to do an inquiry … So they decided to ask for this warrant to spy on our cellular phone," Richer said.

'We still have sources'

Richer said the three learned they had been spied on by police thanks to unnamed sources.

"We still have sources. A source told us today that we were the target of this warrant in 2013, and maybe before. Maybe we were spied for a long period of time. We don't know because those warrants are still sealed," Richer said, adding that today's revelations show that spying on journalists is systematic.

"What floored me is that this is no longer the culture at the SPVM," she said, referring to the Montreal force by its French initials. "It is also the Sûreté du Quebec."

"It's a widespread practice. With the facts we have now, it was a widespread practice," Denis added. 

"It's a shock," said Gravel. "In a democratic society like ours, you never imagine that this thing could happen and be so systematic. It's two events now in the same week. So we're very concerned."

Only case in 20 years, SQ says

The Sûreté du Québec responded to the revelations late Wednesday afternoon, confirming the allegations but adding that it was the only such case in the last 20 years.

"We're talking about one case, which is one case too many, but one case going all the way back to 1995," SQ spokesman Capt. Guy Lapointe told CBC.

"The investigation targeted different individuals, some of them were reporters."

The SQ said that the investigation was closed and sealed in 2014. Current staff only found out about it now because they started looking into their procedures after the province yesterday asked police forces to investigate how they go about getting warrants.

Lapointe said that since 2013, new people and new protocols are in place at the SQ.

"You have to understand that this occurred with the prior administration of the SQ.…Any investigation that is targeting a reporter…[now] needs to be authorized by the high direction, and any kind of warrant that would be obtained towards this investigation needs to be approved by the director himself."

Province to launch inquiry

Quebec Public Security Minister Martin Coiteux said the province will put together an expert panel and launch an administrative inquiry.

He said there will be an inspection of police, including the anti-corruption squad UPAC. 

The inquiry will "inspect the police forces and look at the policies in place," Coiteux said. "There could be sanctions."

He also said it was "odd" that police launched an investigation on the same day that then-SQ director general Mario Laprise received a complaint from former union boss Arsenault.

"It is very peculiar. The head of the FTQ calls the SQ first thing in the morning, and that night an investigation is launched. This is a unique case which raises questions on its own, but it is the only such case in the last 20 years," Coiteux said.

When contacted by Radio-Canada, Laprise refused to comment on the matter. He would only say that the inquiry will have to take its course.

"I think we will have to wait and we will let the people do their jobs," Laprise said. 

Radio-Canada said it had information that Parti Québécois MNA Stéphane Bergeron, who was Quebec's public security minister in 2013, was the one who asked Laprise to look into the FTQ case.

Bergeron denied it.

"I never asked for surveillance. It's an action that I would have never authorized. It's an initiative that I was never informed of until a few moments ago," Bergeron said Wednesday afternoon.

'A crisis'

Earlier this week, the Montreal newspaper La Presse revealed one of its columnists was the subject of a police warrant to track his cellphone communication.

Montreal 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 communicated with.

The news prompted political leaders to call for a greater protection of journalists.

La Presse announced this afternoon it was taking legal action against the Montreal police force.

"I don't think we've seen such a crisis here in the history of journalism. We have to get the facts and then make sure that measures are taken to make sure this doesn't happen again," said Gravel.

It's not clear if the tracking is still going on because the warrants are sealed. The warrants for Lagacé will be unsealed on Nov. 24. It is not known when the warrants for the Radio-Canada reporters will be unsealed.