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Yves Boisvert

Yves Boisvert

yves boisvert

Quebec’s thin line between politics and privacy Add to ...

Yves Boisvert is a columnist for La Presse.

It has been open season on journalists’ sources in Quebec, it seems.

And if this was not troubling enough, we learned Monday that a warrant was obtained to check the phone record of La Presse columnist Patrick Lagacé after a complaint by the Mayor of Montreal. So on top of police overreach and legal officials not stopping them, there was political pressure to catch sources.

Of course, Mayor Denis Coderre never ordered officials to spy on journalists. He just called the police chief to ask, probably in a very calm tone, how the heck do journalists find out about my tickets?

Let’s recap. In 2014, a rumour circulated in the Montreal police force that Mr. Coderre, the new Mayor, managed to clear himself of a $444 ticket for an unpaid licence plate. A police source sent a computerized copy of the ticket to Mr. Lagacé. On it was a special code. The source suspected that code meant the ticket was cancelled in some way.

The journalist checked. False story. The ticket was paid. Nothing was written. But Mr. Coderre was not amused to find out his data had been sent to the press. What do you do when you become a victim of alleged police indiscretion? You call the police chief.

“I did that as a private citizen.” Mr. Coderre said Monday.

Former Montreal police chief Marc Parent confirmed the story. Internal affairs investigators for the Montreal police obtained the phone record of Mr. Lagacé for 15 days, and identified a potential source. A police officer was targeted on suspicion of a “breach of trust” but a prosecutor decided not to lay a charge. Are police creating new legal theories that allow these attacks on journalists’ privacy – and freedom of the press?

No one would deny that leaking personal data is a violation of an officer’s oath and could be a firing offence. However, a mere internal disciplinary inquiry does not give investigators full-fledged powers of investigation. Hence, the police developed the “breach of trust” theory. Breaching the secrecy of an investigation can even be an “obstruction of justice,” they argue. In an interview with La Presse this week, new Police Chief Philippe Pichet tried to spin the theories to the point where he suggested that lives could have been imperilled.

Thank goodness no one has been injured by these media scoops, especially by a ticket story never written.

In another investigation, the Montreal police obtained the live dial number recorder (DNR) of Mr. Lagacé for six months. Police argue it was necessary to collect evidence against police investigators, one of whom was known to be a journalist’s source.

Moreover, they also obtained a warrant for two months’ worth of phone surveillance of Mr. Lagacé and another of our colleagues, Vincent Larouche, to listen to their conversations with a list of 10 police officers. The third case emerges from the Sûreté du Québec.

In 2013, the head of the provincial labour union complained directly to then-public safety minister Stéphane Bergeron about surveillance after some media reported contents of conversations that had been recorded by the police. Mr. Bergeron asked the chief of the Sûreté, whom he had just appointed, for explanations. The result was a warrant issued to check the phone records of six investigative journalists, some for up to five years.

If a prosecution source had not alerted La Presse 10 days ago, none of these fishing expeditions would have been known. Moreover, the Montreal police chief has not been fully transparent, to say the least, since the story broke. Some city politicians are asking for Mr. Pichet to be suspended. But Mr. Coderre stands by the chief, and reiterated that freedom of the press is very dear to his heart.

So let’s rejoice nonetheless: We will have a new commission of inquiry, this one about police spying on the media. After all, it has been months since we’ve had a public commission in Quebec.

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