In late October, the Montreal Gazette published a story claiming that Montreal’s police spied on La Presse reporter Patrick Lagace.
The Gazette, as well as The Montreal Star, outlined how the police, through court-approved search warrants, spied on Lagace through his phone, gaining access to his call logs, messages, and GPS tracking information. Montreal police obtained these search warrants in order to find out who, from their force, was leaking information to the media. However, Lagace had never put out any sort of news regarding the Montreal police. In fact, the articles containing sensitive police information did not even come from La Presse.
The day the surveillance came to light, Lagace tweeted, “The [Twitter] account of the Director of SPVM says, ‘the account is not monitored 24/7’. I find this statement very ironic this morning, @Dir_Pichet.” Montreal police – or the SPVM – claim a platform of no surveillance. Since October 31st, Lagace’s Twitter account has detailed developments in the case, and his views on what he considers a breach of press freedom.
Le compte du directeur du @SPVM dit “le compte n’est pas surveillé 24/7”. Je trouve ça ironique, cette formulation, ce matin @Dir_Pichet pic.twitter.com/2k8MvnuPX9
— Patrick Lagacé (@kick1972) October 31, 2016
Once the Gazette broke news of the spying program that targeted Lagace, there was large international outcry. Peter Bale, the president of Global Editors Network, Edward Snowden, and others condemned the actions taken by the Montreal police. Snowden tweeted on Oct. 31st, as a warning to journalists:
Are you a journalist? The police spying on you specifically to ID your sources isn’t a hypothetical. This is today. https://t.co/6JtOIb7Q4n pic.twitter.com/p4pURXH4nU
— Edward Snowden (@Snowden) October 31, 2016
With this spying incident coming to light, CBC News reported that Sûreté du Québec – the general police force in Quebec – obtained five years of call logs, between 2008 and 2013, from three Radio-Canada journalists. Additionally, in 2014, Sûreté du Québec spied on another journalist to gain more information regarding sources and leaks.
With this new information, the Quebec government launched an investigation commission to find more information regarding police surveillance in the province. However, the investigation was canceled 48 hours later by Mayor Denis Coderre. The reason given for Coderre’s decision was that Quebec’s Public Security department was launching one of its own.
Regardless of who is conducting the investigation into the province’s police, there are some issues that still exist, such as the uncertainty of the results that the investigation will produce. Furthermore, there has been no clear logistical process outlined for the investigation, thus creating even more risk. However, the considerable pressure by the domestic and international community put on Quebec’s government has led to a big step forward in making sure press freedom and privacy is protected.
It is important to note that police surveillance is not the only issue of press freedom in the Quebec province. In September of 2016, Sûreté du Québec attained and investigated Michael Nguyen’s computer. Michael Nguyen is a court reporter for Journal de Montreal. Nguyen’s computer was taken due to his June article regarding the actions of a judge towards court constables. Although there was not much outcry regarding the search and seizure, it is still important to keep an eye on Quebec and to a larger extent on Canada for more possible occurrences of suppressed press freedom.
Canada is looked to as a country where human rights violations or press restrictions are rare; however, these events have shown that even liberal countries are having problems regarding their own press freedom. Canada is not alone, to a much more oppressive extent, in Turkey Erdogan is cracking down on Turkish journalism and in India there is more restricted press freedom under Prime Minister Modi.
The future of press freedom will be a changing landscape in the coming months and years. It will be imperative for the community to stand up against actions restricting press freedom.