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Montreal police monitoring of journalist is a grotesque attack on the free press

Smartphones are a pocket miracle, carrying as they do a second-by-second chronicle of our correspondence, conversations, images and movements. State access to them should be granted with caution, and rarely.

Which brings us to the Montreal police service. Earlier this year, the force sought and obtained at least 24 warrants to monitor the metadata of the iPhone belonging to Patrick Lagacé, a prominent columnist for La Presse newspaper.

Every byte of it. For five months. Even Mr. Lagacé's whereabouts were monitored through the phone's GPS system.

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Mr. Lagacé was not the target of any investigation. He is not suspected of anything nefarious. He didn't unwittingly find himself at the centre of a race against time to thwart terrorists.

What he did do was his job. He has written a number of stories that have embarrassed the Montreal police. At one point, he was in contact with a detective who was under investigation by the police department's internal affairs branch. That was enough for Justice of the Peace Josée de Carufel to sign off on what can only be described as an intolerable intrusion into Mr. Lagacé's life.

The police effectively spied on Mr. Lagacé to find out who his sources are inside the department. It was an act of intimidation that coincided with Police Chief Philippe Pichet's publicly stated goal of rooting out whistleblowers.

This abuse of power has been roundly denounced. Some Montreal city councillors are rightly calling for an inquiry. Quebec's Public Security Minister, Martin Coiteux, called the spying "worrisome" and said his department is looking into it.

Journalists are not special snowflakes. Police must have the ability, within reason, to gather evidence from them, just the way they do from judges, doctors, cabinet ministers or anyone else.

But it shouldn't be easy. It is mind-boggling that Ms. de Carufel, a former prosecutor, was so quick to sign off on the department's repeated request for warrants. Her role in this should be examined.

But the buck stops with Chief Pichet. He must step aside until this matter is fully investigated. If it is shown that he was behind this gross violation of Mr. Lagacé's rights, and of Canada's democratic values, he should be immediately sacked.

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