MONTREAL — The controversy surrounding the surveillance of reporters in Quebec intensified Wednesday as provincial police admitted they monitored the cellphones of several prominent journalists three years ago.
“Warrants had been obtained to be able to (log) outgoing and incoming calls of at least six members of the media,” Capt. Guy Lapointe said in an interview.
He said police kept tabs on the phones as part of an investigation into an alleged leak of confidential wiretap information in 2013.
News of the surveillance came a few days after it emerged Montreal police obtained court-authorized warrants this year to monitor the iPhone of La Presse columnist Patrick Lagace because they believed the target of one of their internal investigations was feeding him information.
Lapointe said Martin Prud’homme, who became provincial police director in 2014, wanted to know whether the force had engaged in any similar activity in recent years.
Prud’homme is asking for an independent investigation into the situation.
“To ensure it was done according to the laws, it was by the book and the rights of everyone had been respected,” Lapointe said, explaining the reason for Prud’homme’s request.
While the warrants obtained by the provincial force are sealed and police didn’t name the journalists, the shocked reporters in question did come forward.
Some said police were attempting to figure out the source of a leak concerning a criminal investigation into a prominent labour leader.
Radio-Canada identified three of the six as their employees, while La Presse and Le Journal de Montreal said they each had one on the list. The employer of the sixth was not revealed.
Marie-Maude Denis, one of the six, said a source told her police obtained warrants that allowed them to compile a list of numbers from incoming and outgoing calls, although it is believed they did not listen to the content of the actual conversations.
“I’ve been receiving a lot of calls from people I spoke to and who are wondering if they were listened to,” Denis, an investigative reporter at Radio-Canada, told the CBC’s French-language network.
“It’s important to mention the conversations weren’t listened to. Probably, they were looking for police officers who were possibly feeding us and they weren’t interested in other people.
“But this shakes everything we take for granted in a democracy when you’re a reporter. I am extremely disturbed by this.”
Meanwhile, La Presse has sent a lawyer’s letter to the Montreal police department, warning it against the use of data collected from Lagace’s phone.
The newspaper’s lawyer will be in court Friday to argue the information should be sealed.
“The absence of precautions taken during the collection of data from Mr. Lagace’s cellphone to protect confidential sources is a scandal and an unprecedented attack on the freedom of the press,” Sebastien Pierre-Roy wrote.
Investigators themselves acknowledged the information wasn’t relevant, but the police still possess it and admit it could lead to Lagace’s sources being revealed.
“This data has never belonged to the SPVM (Montreal police), and still does not belong to them,” Pierre-Roy wrote.