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Politics Warrants to shed light on Quebec police's surveillance of journalists

Montreal Chief of Police Philippe Pichetspeaks to the media about the tapping of a newspaper reporter's smart phone at a news conference, Monday, October 31, 2016 in Montreal.

Ryan Remiorz/THE CANADIAN PRESS

She is a TV reporter who exposed the rot in Quebec's construction industry; he is a print journalist known as much for his hard-news scoops as his opinion columns.

Marie-Maude Denis and Patrick Lagacé are among at least eight journalists who were recently spied upon by either the provincial Sûreté du Québec or the Montreal Police Service.

The first clear sense of what happened is set to come out soon in Montreal, where a court will release the first of dozens of warrants that targeted some of Quebec's best-known journalists. The disclosure could come as early as Thursday, or in ensuing days, depending on the ruling.

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The search warrants gave police unprecedented access to journalists' cellphones to track their movements and calls. They raise troubling questions about the relationships among officers, politicians and the judges who are supposed to keep the authorities in check.

The Quebec government has launched a public inquiry into the surveillance, and the ramifications will go on for years. They could have an impact across the country if the federal government feels the need to enact legislation to protect journalists and their sources.

What is clear is that in Quebec's unique cultural universe, the police could hardly have picked better-known journalists to spy upon and unleash a furor over their tactics.

Ms. Denis co-hosts a show on Radio-Canada called Enquête (the French-language equivalent of The Fifth Estate), for which she did stories in recent years that exposed widespread corruption and collusion on large construction projects in Quebec. Her reporting angered Michel Arsenault, who was head of the Quebec Federation of Labour at the time. In a letter to the province's public safety minister in 2013, he complained about alleged leaks from police to journalists – and the file was passed to the head of the SQ, which launched an investigation.

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Mr. Lagacé is a journalist at Montreal's La Presse and co-host of two television programs. With a large presence on social media, he has a unique profile in his home province. In 2014, he asked questions about allegations he had heard that Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre had not paid a ticket for a driving infraction. (He did not report on the matter.) The ticket had been paid, but that was not clear at the time. Mr. Coderre talked about the matter with the city's police chief, and a probe was launched. In another case, the Montreal police investigated allegations an officer was providing information to Mr. Lagacé and other journalists.

Other journalists targeted included Radio-Canada reporters Alain Gravel and Isabelle Richer, and La Presse reporters Denis Lessard, Vincent Larouche and André Cédilot, who is now retired. The eighth reporter who was spied on is the Journal de Montréal's Eric Thibault, a crime writer who did not focus as much on the issues the others were covering, but is married to Ms. Denis.

Montreal police obtained warrants that enabled them to monitor Mr. Lagacé's whereabouts using the GPS in his iPhone. In all cases, police officers gained access to lists of incoming and outgoing calls on the reporters' phones in a bid to find out who within their services was leaking information.

"You always know it's possible, but you never think they'll go this far," said Mr. Lessard, whose cellphone logs were accessed by police.

Ms. Denis, whose phone calls were tracked for a five-year period during which he did countless news stories, called the situation "scandalous."

While the public inquiry has yet to start its hearings, questions have already been raised on things such as the relationship between police and politicians. Another key issue is whether judicial officials took steps to determine whether the warrants were really necessary.

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"We hope that the public inquiry will focus much more on the police's activities than the work of journalists, as well as the relationship between politicians and police authorities," said Radio-Canada's director of news services, Michel Cormier.

"It's worrying that on the basis of a phone call, such investigations were launched so quickly," Mr. Cormier added, noting the reporters committed no crimes.

Another concern is whether journalists are still able to protect sources who request anonymity in exchange for information of public interest. Mr. Cédilot said he was astounded to find out that the warrant obtained in his case allowed the SQ to look at his phone records all the way back to 2008 and 2009.

He said the use of judicial warrants went well beyond any "witch hunt" into past news stories.

"This is my biggest fear come true," Mr. Cédilot said. "I simply cannot accept the fact that sources that I had protected for over 20 years could have been exposed in such a way."

Mr. Lagacé and his employer have had warrants related to his case since Dec. 2. Editors and lawyers have gone through them to redact details that could lead to the identification of sources when it publishes them, which it plans to do in the coming days.

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What will be particularly interesting when those documents are released to the public will be the motives police invoked. While the Montreal police did not listen to the conversations of Mr. Lagacé and Mr. Larouche, it did obtain a warrant at one point to do so, based on the information culled from the two reporters' phone records.

Radio-Canada is hoping the SQ warrants will be released only in front of the public inquiry. Mr. Cormier said it would be a better forum, given that media lawyers will be able to question the police officers involved.

The public inquiry will hold its hearings in 2017 and have until 2018 to release its findings.

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