Couillard steps in amid new revelations of police spying on journalists
Published Tuesday, November 1, 2016 12:52PM EDT
Last Updated Tuesday, November 1, 2016 9:45PM EDT
The province of Quebec will take steps to protect the freedom of journalists as the list of reporters under surveillance by Montreal police grows.
Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard did not specifically address what had been done by Montreal police, but said journalistic freedom was incredibly important to democratic society.
"Liberty of the press, which is something that something that people have died for," said Couillard.
He made the statement on Tuesday, the day after Quebec discovered that Montreal police were tapping the phones of La Presse columnist and CJAD 800 contributor Patrick Lagacé.
Montreal police had at least 24 surveillance warrants on Lagacé, all an effort to determine who the reporter was speaking to.
Meanwhile police were keeping track of conversations between police and three other reporters: TVA's Félix Séguin, Cogeco radio justice reporter Monic Neron and freelance investigative journalist Fabrice de Pierrebourg.
Police did not have warrants for those three, but did track every call they made to police officers -- or that police officers made to them.
Couillard said it was all unacceptable, and on Tuesday he announced three measures to protect journalistic sources.
"The first one is the formation of a group of experts which will be presided by a judge with significant expertise, respected in the community on these matters particularly, with representatives from the police and also from the media," said the premier.
As a second step, Public Security Minister Martin Coiteux will issue a directive making it harder for police to obtain search warrants targeting reporters. It will put journalists in the same category as judges, lawyers, and members of the National Assembly.
The third step will be an examination of the province's three major police units.
"The police of Montreal, the police of Quebec and the SQ. This inspection will be done by officials of the ministry, starting with the police of Montreal. And Mr. Coiteux has spoken with the mayor on the subject very recently," said Couillard.
The opposition is calling for legislation to protect journalists.
Jean-Francois Lisée, who spent years working as a journalist, thinks legislation is necessary.
"As a civil libertarian, I think it's always troublesome when police delve into a reporter's notebook, be it electronic or otherwise," said the leader of the Parti Quebecois.
Francois Legault of the CAQ wants a public inquiry.
"They have to make proposals maybe about changing laws, changing rules. It's unacceptable what happened," said Legault.
The political decrees come after pressure from the opposition, police union and news directors to take concrete action.Police Brotherhood President Yves Francoeur is demanding Chief Philippe Pichet resign in light of the surveillance revelations.
Pichet claims he had no knowledge of the surveillance on journalists, but the union says the chief undermined the principles of a free society by allowing it.
Francoeur said Pichet has lost the moral authority to continue as police chief, adding that union members no longer have any trust in Pichet.
He added that many of officers have turned into whistleblowers, speaking to Lagacé and other journalists to air their grievances with the Montreal police force management.
Francoeur said officers feel there has been a breach of trust between them and their chief, who they also referred to as a puppet for Coderre.
“There was a lack of trust from our members to him and his direction,” said Francoeur. “Right now, I think he went too far and I don’t think he has the legitimacy and the credibility to continue.”
Meantime, the directors of the major newsrooms in Quebec – including CTV Montreal – have written a joint letter denouncing the police surveillance tactics, calling it ‘unacceptable’ that investigators were able to obtain access to the telephone data and geolocation of a journalist simply to identify that journalist's sources within the police force.
They are calling for concrete action from politicians to make it more difficult for police to obtain warrants to spy on journalists and newsrooms.
Canada's privacy czar Daniel Therrien said the police surveillance suggests a need for clearer laws. Therrien told a Commons committee that Parliament has a role to play in guiding the courts on when to grant police a warrant to obtain sensitive data.
Therrien says while judicial involvement in issuing the warrants is a good start, it's not adequate in itself -- and it may be useful to give the courts new tools to better exercise their powers.