The case of a journalist being spied on by police in Montreal has raised questions about the ease with which law enforcement can get warrants to track the phones of reporters.
Patrick Lagacé, a reporter and columnist at La Presse, learned that since January Montreal police had gotten 24 warrants to track the metadata and GPS from his phone. The police said that they were using Lagacé to investigate one of their own officers.
Since the news broke, numerous journalists in Canada and beyond have criticized the police. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has called these reports “troubling.”
News also broke that police had collected the call logs of three journalists between 2008 and 2013.
To learn more about this story, VPR spoke with Stephen Rukavina, a reporter at the CBC in Montreal.
VPR: Why were the police tracking this journalist?
Rukavina: “[Patrick Lagacé] is both a reporter [and] a columnist, one of the most well-known columnists in Quebec.
"At the time, Montreal police were investigating one of their own officers [in an] internal affairs case for allegedly falsifying evidence. In the course of their investigation, they looked at his phone records and found that he had made phone calls to Patrick Lagacé.
“So they decided, 'Well, we want to know, you know, what he's been saying to Patrick Lagacé or ... if he's the source of leaks about this case.' They went to a justice of the peace and the justice of the peace gave them a warrant allowing them to track Patrick Lagacé’s incoming calls, the numbers of all outgoing calls ... text messages too.
“Patrick Lagacé just found out about this last week, when a colleague of his who was covering the police investigation said said to him, ‘Hey, your name keeps coming up in this.’ So Patrick Lagacé and lawyers from La Presse, the newspaper he works for, made some calls and found out that this surveillance had been happening."
Why was it so easy for the police to get this warrant from the justice of the peace?
“That's the question. Because there are, in the Canadian constitution, provisions for when you want to do surveillance or get a warrant on a journalists, and they're quite strict. It seems that at first blush, this just didn't meet the test there.
“One of the interesting things was it wasn't a judge who granted these warrants. It was a justice of the peace, who has lesser powers than a judge.
“I spoke to a retired judge who said there has been a chronic problem with justices of the peace in that they don't have the training to understand the threshold when they can grant surveillance warrants, and also that they're often very close to police and prosecutors who are requesting these warrants, and sometimes have a tendency to rubber stamp them.”
Talk a little bit about what's known as Bill C-13. As I understand it, some of the extraordinary powers of police to do this kind of surveillance were tied up with this bill.
“The bill was initially tied to cyber-bullying [as] a way of preventing that ... It did give police more investigative powers, and it did give more powers in terms of granting warrants. It was never intended, obviously, to be used to track journalists, but it seems as though some police and some prosecutors did interpret it that way.”
And the way the law is written the people that are being tracked may never know that they were being spied on because the police don't have to inform them, even after the investigation is done.
“Police are not obliged to inform them. In the case of Patrick Lagacé, once he learned that he was the subject of this through his colleague, he contacted police and they did agree to meet with him.
“Investigators explained precisely why he was under surveillance and they said, ‘Look ... even though we obtained the power to track your GPS, we never actually did it.’ So they were trying to assuage him, but he was still outraged — as are many journalists and politicians and lawyers and members of the general public in Quebec right now."
Is it possible this incident could cause the law to change?
“The journalists' federation in Quebec is calling for the laws to be strengthened. The heads of all the major newsrooms in Montreal signed an open letter calling for changes to the law. Even some politicians are saying the laws need to be tightened.”
And the other reason I imagine there's been such an outcry here is because this does not apply just to reporters, but the general public as well.
“It's interesting, because sometimes as journalists when we do stories about journalists, we wonder, 'Does the public care? Are we just talking in an echo chamber?' But one of the newspapers actually did some polling on this after the story broke and found that there was a really high level of interest in this. Four out of five people surveyed were aware of this story, and three out of four felt it was unacceptable and felt that something should be done about this.
“The pollster said it's kind of rare to get that consensus in Quebec, where there's usually division in political matters. So it shows that it's not just journalists here who are concerned about this — members of the public in Quebec are concerned as well.
“Investigative journalists have broken big stories in this province, particularly uncovering municipal corruption. People recognize that journalists have a role, and investigative journalists in Quebec, many of them are household names. So people feel that [journalists are] something precious to them, and that's why I think the government had no choice but to act.”