La Presse columnist and CJAD 800 contributor Patrick Lagacé was the only journalist placed under surveillance by Montreal police said SPVM chief Philippe Pichet on Monday.
Pichet was speaking at a press conference given in the wake of the revelation that Lagacé’s iPhone had been monitored by police for months. The revelation had left Montreal's politicians and media community distraught, with many criticizing the SPVM's actions.
Pichet defended the investigation, saying it "required exceptional measures," and the officers involved respected the law when they asked for and obtained the warrant on Lagacé’s phone.
He added that the journalist was the only one placed under surveillance, to the best of his knowledge.
SPVM @Dir_Pichet : "I have nothing against freedom of the press". But defends his decision to allow spying on journalist Patrick Lagacé— Stéphane Giroux (@SGirouxCTV) October 31, 2016
Montreal police special investigators obtained at least 24 surveillance warrants to learn the identities of people with whom La Presse columnist Patrick Lagacé was speaking. The Special Investigations squad is responsible for tackling crime within the police bureau, and ostensibly was seeking to determine the source of media leaks.
Furious, Lagacé called it “a paranoid fishing expedition.”
In an interview with CJAD, he said it’s clear the motive for the surveillance was to intimidate sources.
“It’s not that they want to send a message to journalists. I think in the past years, Montreal police have been dealing with a number of leaks, and I think that what we’re seeing this morning, this surveillance of my person, is really a message for sources and potential sources,” he said.
Sebastien Pierre-Roy, an attorney for La Presse, called the surveillance an unprecedented intrusion into the work of journalists.
"As far as I know, it's the first time in Canada that we've learned that a police force has gone so far into obtaining information, private information, from a journalist with the express purpose of identifying one of his sources," he said.
The warrants allowed police to monitor both Lagacé’s incoming and outgoing calls and text messages and know the phone’s exact location due to a GPS chip they were able to turn on and off.
Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre said he is “concerned” by the surveillance and called in “unacceptable.” He said he has spoken both with Pichet and Public Safety Minister Martin Coiteux about it.
He added that he would let the courts handle the matter, and does not believe Pichet needs to step aside.
Councillors from opposition party Projet Montreal, however, adamantly disagree.
“We believe that it is inconceivable that an operation this sensitive would not have been approved by Philippe Pichet, the chief of police of the SPVM. That is why we’re asking him to step aside pending an outcome of an inquiry into this affair,” said Projet Montreal councillor Alex Norris.
“This is a grave violation of the principle of the independence of the media,” said Norris. “The Supreme Court of Canada in 1991 laid out clear rules under what circumstances a police officer or police force can carry out this type of investigative technique against a journalist and it really has to be a last resort. There’s nothing here that indicated this is a last resort.”
La Presse was in court in Montreal Monday morning to try to limit the distribution that information. The proceeding will return to court on Nov. 24. La Presse’s lawyer called the surveillance unprecedented in Canadian media.
La Presse editor Eric Trottier strongly criticized the police operation, calling it an “unequivocal attack against the institution of La Presse and against the entire journalistic profession.”
Outgoing Montreal police internal affairs boss Costa Labos said in an interview that he gave the green light to the investigation, but would not say if Chief Philippe Pichet was informed of the surveillance.
Labos added that “to his knowledge” no other journalist had been placed under Montreal police surveillance in recent years, but that he could not “guarantee” that fact.
The surveillance was ordered as part of an internal probe into allegations that police anti-gang investigators fabricated evidence.
Five police officers were arrested this summer and two were charged as a result.
Lagacé’s story garnered attention worldwide, with noted advocate of press freedom Edward Snowden tweeting about it.
With files from The Canadian Press