MONTREAL - A Montreal journalist whose iPhone was monitored by police for months says he was outraged to discover he'd been "spied on" as part of what he calls an effort to identify his sources.
"I was living in the fiction that police officers wouldn't dare do that, and in the fiction that judges were protecting journalists — and hence the public — against this type of police intrusion," La Presse columnist Patrick Lagace said in an interview Monday.
"Clearly, I was naive."
The French-language newspaper said it learned at least 24 surveillance warrants were issued for Lagace's phone this year at the request of the police's special investigations unit. That section is responsible for looking into crime within the police force.
Three of those warrants reportedly authorized police to get the phone numbers for all Lagace's incoming and outgoing texts and calls, while another allowed them to track the phone's location via its GPS chip.
The surveillance was ordered as part of an internal probe into allegations police anti-gang investigators fabricated evidence.
Five police officers were arrested this summer and two were charged as a result.
Lagace said police told him they obtained the court-authorized warrants because they believed the target of one of their investigations was feeding him information.
But he said the story in question was actually first reported on by a competitor, leading him to believe the investigation was actually a thinly veiled attempt to learn the identity of his sources within the police department.
"To me, this was a great pretext to try to investigate a reporter who has done numerous stories in the past that have embarrassed the service," he said.
"This is a big thing in a country like Canada. Police were permitted to spy on a journalist under very, very thin motives on a secondary part of a criminal investigation."
Montreal police Chief Philippe Pichet said the surveillance was in response to an "exceptional situation" and he pointed out the operation targeted the force's own officers and not Lagace.
"We are very aware of the importance of freedom of the press," he told a news conference. "On the other hand, the (Montreal police) also has the responsibility to investigate all types of crimes involving police officers."
He said to his knowledge no other journalists had been placed under surveillance recently, but added he could not guarantee it.
Reaction to La Presse's story was swift, with many unions and media organizations denouncing the police operation, and some opposition city councillors calling for Pichet to step aside while the matter is investigated.
La Presse's vice-president of information, Eric Trottier, called the surveillance "an unequivocal attack on the institution that is La Presse and against the entire journalistic profession."
Mayor Denis Coderre said he was concerned by the report but that it isn't his role to intefere with the work of the courts or the police.
"We have to be concerned and we can't take it lightly," he told a news conference in Montreal, adding he had discussed the matter with Pichet and Quebec Public Security Minister Martin Coiteux.
Coiteux later said his department was conducting "verifications" but he would not elaborate on what that entailed.
He described the reports as "troubling" but, like Coderre, stressed the importance of keeping politics out of the police and court systems.
"We as a government won't involve ourselves in judicial decisions, we won't involve ourselves in police investigations, but we will ask questions," Coiteux told reporters in Quebec City.
The case also attracted the attention of renowned whistleblower Edward Snowden, who tweeted about it. "Are you a journalist? The police spying on you specifically to ID your sources is not hypothetical. This is today," he said, with a link to a Montreal Gazette story about the matter.
The outgoing head of internal affairs for the Montreal police confirmed to La Presse he authorized the surveillance.
Costa Labos told the newspaper he didn't believe any other journalists had been the object of surveillance in recent years but he couldn't guarantee it.
Lagace said the newspaper is contesting the legality of the warrants and will try to retrieve the information collected by police.