A Montreal journalist said he was furious when he learned that city police monitored his iPhone for months in order to find out who he was speaking with.
“I was living in the fiction that police officers wouldn’t dare do that, and in the fiction that judges were protecting journalists – and hence the public – against this type of police intrusion,” La Presse columnist Patrick Lagacé said in an interview Monday.
“Clearly, I was naive.”
The French-language newspaper reported it has learned at least 24 surveillance warrants were issued for Lagacé ‘s phone this year at the request of the police’s special investigations unit.
That section is responsible for looking into crime within the police force.
Three of those warrants reportedly authorized police to get the phone numbers for all Lagacé’s incoming and outgoing texts and calls, while another allowed them to track the phone’s location via its GPS chip.
Lagacé said police told him they obtained the 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.
“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.
La Presse’s vice-president of information, Eric Trottier, strongly condemned the police operation, calling it “an unequivocal attack on the the institution that is La Presse and against the entire journalistic profession.”
In Ottawa, federal Minister of Public Safety Ralph Goodale insisted freedom of the press is a fundamental Canadian value.
“Journalism is fundamental to the well-being of this country. Freedom of the press is a protected value under the Charter of Rights and we respect that enormously,” he said.
“It’s under provincial jurisdiction, but we’ve stated our position federally that freedom of the press is an absolutely fundamental Canadian value.”
The outgoing head of internal affairs for the Montreal police confirmed to La Presse he authorized the surveillance.
Costa Labos told La Presse he didn’t believe any other journalists had been the object of surveillance in recent years but he couldn’t guarantee it.
Montreal police Chief Philippe Pichet said the surveillance was in response to an “exceptional situation” and he pointed out the operation targeted the force’s own officers and not Lagacé.
“We are very aware of the importance of freedom of the press,” he told a news conference.
“On the other hand, the (Montreal police) also has the responsibility to investigate all types of crimes involving police officers.”
He said to his knowledge no other journalists had been placed under surveillance recently, but added he could not guarantee it.
The surveillance was ordered as part of an internal probe into allegations police anti-gang investigators fabricated evidence.
Five police officers were arrested this summer and two were charged as a result.
Lagacé said the newspaper is contesting the legality of the warrants and will try to retrieve the information collected by police.
La Presse hasn’t decided whether it will pursue further legal action, Lagacé said.