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Patrick Lagacé is a prominent columnist with La Presse newspaper in Montreal.Alain Roberge

The Quebec government has moved quickly with a series of measures to try to restore confidence in the judicial system and protect press freedom amid a widening controversy over the surveillance of journalists by police.

Premier Philippe Couillard announced his government would immediately send directives to the province's three largest police forces aimed at making it harder to obtain a search warrant against a journalist.

"People have died for the freedom of the press," Mr. Couillard said. "It's a fundamental freedom."

Related: La Presse says Montreal police tracked journalist's iPhone for months

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The announcement came in the aftermath of damaging disclosures that high-profile Quebec journalist Patrick Lagacé had been the target of a months-long covert police operation that tracked the calls and texts on his iPhone, and allowed law enforcement to follow his movements through the phone's GPS. Montreal police were seeking the source of an internal leak to the media.

The scope of the controversy appeared to grow on Tuesday after a Montreal daily said three other journalists had also been the object of police attention. Citing police sources, Le Journal de Montréal said police brass did not obtain court warrants but had scrutinized the call logs of its officers to find out who had been speaking to the reporters.

The ongoing revelations have caused a firestorm both in Quebec and in Ottawa. They also led to calls for the resignation of Montreal's police chief, Philippe Pichet, including from rank-and-file members of his force. The union representing Montreal police say a clampdown to find the sources of leaks to the media is evidence of a "witch hunt."

"There was already a very weak climate of confidence toward Chief Pichet and his administration, but now this confidence is broken," Yves Francoeur, head of the Montreal Police Brotherhood, told Radio-Canada.

Mr. Couillard sidestepped questions about the Lagacé case but, repeatedly invoking his commitment to a free press, announced three steps. The province will set up an expert panel headed by a judge that will include representatives of the police and media; it will make recommendations to the National Assembly that could include legislative changes.

The Ministry of Public Security will also begin an "inspection" of procedures at the province's largest forces – Montreal, Quebec City and the provincial Sûreté du Québec. The precise mandate was not clear.

And rules to obtain the kind of warrant that put La Presse columnist Mr. Lagacé in the police's sights – a process that has come under heavy criticism – will be tightened. Officers will have to get clearance from the Quebec public prosecutor's office before seeking a warrant before the courts.

"The level of difficulty to obtain a surveillance warrant for a member of your profession deserved to be increased," Mr. Couillard told a press conference in Quebec City. Journalists would be given the higher level of protection afforded to lawyers, judges, and provincial legislators, he said.

In Ottawa, 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.

"We'll look at the ministerial directive at the federal level to ensure that is appropriate and sufficient in the circumstances. If we think some additional adjustment needs to be taken, we'll make it," he said.

RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson added he was not aware of "any ongoing investigations or surveillance activities against any journalists."

The role of justices of the peace is facing intensified scrutiny in light of the Lagacé controversy in Quebec. Police obtained 24 warrants to target the Montreal-based journalist, some from Justice of the Peace Josée De Carufel, a long-time lawyer for the Quebec government who had worked in the public prosecutor's office before being named in 2012.

A report this year found that 94 per cent of those nominated to become justices of the peace in the past nine years came from jobs in the civil service, including the prosecutor's office. The absence of private-sector candidates raises a problem with "the appearance of institutional bias," the report said. "The fact that the very large majority of justices of the peace had previously worked for the government could lead people to question their impartiality," it said.

Danièle Roy, head of the Montreal Association of Defence Lawyers, raised concerns about the "appearance of justice." "Since most of them come from the public prosecutors' office and worked with police officers all their lives, you can ask yourself if they don't tend to be a little more indulgent toward them," she said.

Experts raised questions about the court's willingness to grant the warrants to monitor Mr. Lagacé.

"A search warrant is a gross invasion of privacy, and they [justices of the peace] have the authority to grant them," said lawyer Mark Bantey, a media law specialist in Montreal.

He said a judge or justice of the peace has to be convinced there are "reasonable grounds" that a search warrant will yield evidence related to the commission of a crime.

"I don't even think they satisfied the basic test [for Mr. Lagacé]. The real purpose was to find out his sources, not who committed a crime."

With a report from Daniel Leblanc in Ottawa

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