Quebec has announced a public inquiry into press freedom and police surveillance amid fresh disclosures that the monitoring of some journalists' cellphones lasted as long as five years and targeted an ever-growing list of reporters.
On Thursday, new evidence added to growing concerns about the scope of the police spying. Three of Quebec's most respected investigative journalists said they were told by the provincial Sûreté du Québec that their phone data had been tracked from 2008 to 2013 – the very years police were unearthing and exposing corruption in Quebec's construction industry.
The disclosures suggest police would have been able to access logs of calls that included those from whistleblowers dealing with highly sensitive matters.
"During this whole period – I feel sick about it – the police had their noses in our phones," Alain Gravel, an award-winning Radio-Canada journalist, said on the public broadcaster on Thursday. Two other Radio-Canada television journalists, Marie-Maude Denis and Isabelle Richer, say they too were told they were under scrutiny for five years. All three had been identified on Wednesday as part of a group of six journalists targeted for surveillance by the provincial police.
As each day delivers more startling admissions from police about surreptitious monitoring, one opposition MNA said the situation in Quebec was reminiscent of the former Soviet bloc.
The week began with the bombshell report that La Presse columnist Patrick Lagacé had had his cellphone data tracked for months this year; since then, the list of reporters targeted by police has not stopped growing. Late in the afternoon on Thursday, Montreal's police department said their own investigation found a second journalist was the object of a surveillance warrant, this one in 2014; police did not identify the reporter, but said the tracking operation was part of a probe into one of its own officers, as was the case for Mr. Lagacé.
The latest case brings to 11 the number of journalists in Quebec whose phones were reportedly monitored by either the Montreal or provincial police – the two largest forces in Quebec.
Montreal police obtained court warrants to monitor two journalists; Quebec provincial police got court orders against six journalists, according to facts confirmed by both services. And in the case of three others, police scrutinized the call logs of its officers to find out who had been speaking to the reporters, according to a media report.
The Liberal government of Philippe Couillard, which has tried to manage the controversy since it began to unfurl on Monday, announced on Thursday it would set up a commission of inquiry. Earlier this week, the government had set up a panel of experts to study the revelations; that panel will now be upgraded.
"Because the principle of press freedom, the principle of the protection of sources, is extremely important, well that is what's at the heart of the affair," said Quebec Public Security Minister Martin Coiteux. "But the confidence of our population is also, we believe, shaken."
"We want to shed light on the question, and we'll do it in a transparent way," he said.
The commission's mandate has not been specified; however, Quebec Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée stressed the importance of journalistic sources and freedom of the media.
It would likely mean Quebec would stage months of hearings to probe the activities of police and possibly their ties to politicians. The Quebec provincial police launched their probe of the six journalists in 2013 the same day they received a call from a Parti Québécois cabinet minister, Stéphane Bergeron. Mr. Bergeron admitted he called the head of the SQ at the time to ask him to look into it, but he says he never ordered the journalist surveillance. Mr. Bergeron stepped aside on Thursday as PQ public-security critic.
In Ottawa, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said reports about the media surveillance were "troubling."
"Like all Canadians, I am following this story coming out of my city, my province, with concern," Mr. Trudeau said. He said he obtained assurances from the RCMP and CSIS that "there has been nothing of this sort happening at the federal level."
"We have actually very strong safeguards and protections in place to protect freedom of the press in the course of the business conducted by CSIS and the RCMP," he said. "Not only is freedom of the press important, it's one of the foundational safeguards of a free democracy, of a free society."
With a report from Laura Stone in Ottawa