A controversy over police surveillance of the press in Quebec deepened Wednesday with revelations that six journalists, including some of the province's top investigative reporters, had their cellphones surreptitiously monitored by provincial law enforcement as far back as 2013.
The disclosures made by several media outlets and confirmed by the provincial Sûreté du Québec suggest that covert police surveillance of Quebec journalists dates further back and is more widespread than previously known.
La Presse revealed this week that one of its journalists, columnist Patrick Lagacé, had his iPhone data tracked by Montreal police for months this year after they obtained search warrants. On Wednesday, Quebec provincial police said it had also obtained court warrants to monitor the log of incoming and outgoing cellphone calls of six journalists.
The raft of disclosures has fuelled a growing sense of alarm over state surveillance of the press. On Wednesday evening, Quebec Public Security Minister Martin Coiteux told reporters his department would lead an administrative probe into the 2013 surveillance case at the Sûreté du Québec. It had been requested by its current director-general, Martin Prud'homme.
The force was under the leadership of another chief, Mario Laprise, in 2013.
"According to the information I have, this would be the only case in the last 20 years affecting journalists targeted by a Sûreté du Québec investigation," Mr. Coiteux said in Quebec City.
Still, news that more journalists were being spied on through their cellphones left several in the media industry shaken and led the executive director of news and current affairs at Radio-Canada, Michel Cormier, to refer to the situation as an "unprecedented crisis." The five that have been identified are affiliated with Radio-Canada, La Presse and Le Journal de Montréal.
"What floors me is that this is no longer the culture of the Montreal police service," Isabelle Richer said on Radio-Canada, where she is a journalist. "It's also the Sûreté du Québec. So it's a generalized hunt for sources." On Twitter, she called the news "surrealistic."
Police say the calls were not wiretapped.
Events that led to the surveillance are also raising eyebrows. They began when Michel Arsenault, former head of the Quebec Federation of Labour, was angry about media reports that he had been the subject of police surveillance. The police actions were part of a criminal investigation into the infiltration of organized crime in the construction industry in Quebec.
Mr. Arsenault complained about the media leaks to the Public Security Minister at the time, Stéphane Bergeron of the Parti Québécois. The Sûreté du Québec investigation into finding the source of the leaks began soon afterwards.
Mr. Bergeron denied on Wednesday he had a hand in ordering the journalist surveillance. "I obviously didn't ask for surveillance. It's an initiative that should have never been authorized, it's an initiative of which I had never been informed," he said.
Captain Guy Lapointe of the Sûreté du Québec said in an interview the current head of the provincial police force, Mr. Prud'homme, is "very irritated" and "preoccupied" that the surveillance had been ordered by his predecessor.
The fresh revelations have given added urgency to opposition calls in Quebec City that the Liberal government of Philippe Couillard hold an inquiry into the controversy. On Tuesday, the Premier attempted to get ahead of the controversy, announcing measures to tighten rules for obtaining search warrants against journalists and striking a panel of experts to look into the situation.
In Ottawa that day, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale told reporters his government is open to toughening the rules that govern how and when the federal government can investigate members of the media.
For investigative journalists, reliance on confidential sources is crucial in exposing wrongdoing and holding powerful interests accountable. And investigative journalism played a central role in Quebec in exposing corruption in the construction industry, which led to the creation of the Charbonneau Commission. The public commission produced a report exposing the wide reach of corruption in the province's multibillion-dollar public construction industry and its links to organized crime.
Meanwhile, La Presse is seeking to have the data collected on Mr. Lagacé sealed. It sent the Montreal police force a lawyer's letter on Wednesday demanding it refrain from accessing the information until a judge rules on a motion on the case.
"We think it would be a significant problem if the data was accessed by anyone because it would tend to identify the confidential sources of Mr. Lagacé," Sébastien Pierre-Roy, lawyer for La Presse, said in an interview.
"The absence of precautions taken during the collection of data from Mr. Lagacé's cellphone to protect confidential sources is a scandal and an unprecedented attack on the freedom of the press," Mr. Pierre-Roy wrote in the letter to police.
In addition to the six reporters, media reports have found that three Quebec journalists had recently been the object of police attention. Police did not obtain court warrants but had scrutinized the call logs of its officers to find out who had been speaking to the reporters.