How deep does the abuse of police surveillance run, how can reporters protect themselves and their sources, and what does the future hold for the freedom of the press?
These questions were at the forefront of a panel called “L’Affaire Lagacé: A Free Press in The Surveillance State,” on Thursday, November 10, in response to the recent revelations that the Service de Police de la Ville de Montréal (SPVM) had been using wiretaps on journalists.
These revelations came about after La Presse broke the story that the SPVM had been spying on one of their reporters, Patrick Lagacé. This quickly became a much larger scandal when it was revealed that warrants for journalists from other media outlets had also been issued.
Panelists at the event included former BBC reporter and executive director of the Fédération professionnelle des journalistes du Québec (FPJQ) Caroline Locher, Mark Bantey, a partner at the Gowling WLG law firm, Fabien Gélinas, a professor of Law at McGill, and Yann Pineau, the senior director of Continuous Improvement at La Presse.
The panel was moderated by Andrew Potter, former journalist and director of The McGill Institute for the Study of Canada (MISC).
“I clued in when Lucinda Chodan, editor of the Montreal Gazette, along with Eric Trottier of La Presse and a couple other journalists, published an open letter basically calling this an outrage,” Potter told The Daily. “That was when I realized this was a problem I needed to pay attention to and I thought ‘somebody needs to do something’ and then I thought ‘hey wait, I have an institute whose job it is to convene these sort of things.’”
During the event, Locher said, “I have reported on many countries that do not have freedom of the press, countries you would call a police state, and what we saw here is in many ways close to a police state.”
“I clued in when Lucinda Chodan, editor of the Montreal Gazette, along with Eric Trottier of La Presse and a couple other journalists, published an open letter basically calling this an outrage.”
In response to the wiretapping, the province of Quebec has launched a public inquiry, headed by a commission of experts on law and journalism. The panelists believe this will bring to light many of the answers needed to proceed.
“It is hard for us to make a judgement of the investigations without all of the facts,” Gélinas said to the room. “We don’t know what the police had put forward to the judges, and [the] provisions of the law under which the warrants were issued. There were multiple warrants issued by different judges, meaning there is reason to believe the judges did not know the depth of the situation.”
“I have reported on many countries that do not have freedom of the press, countries you would call a police state, and what we saw here is in many ways close to a police state.”
However, some attendees of the event were skeptical that the commission would bring about substantial change. Sharon Polsky, an attendee and president of the AMINA Corporation – which specializes in privacy and data protection, offered a more “realistic outlook,” in her words.
“Having grown up in Montreal, it is the current issue with police surveillance under questionable circumstances that leads me to believe that things have not changed much [since I moved to Toronto],” she said. “It has always been, in my experience, […] a vibrant city, but one where corruption exists and is deeply entrenched in every aspect of life here. I must wonder what positive outcome – what real change – might happen from a commission. They ask questions, there are inquiries, but nothing comes of it.”
Panel members also shared concerns about the future of journalism, and the potential negative ramifications of the 2016 U.S. presidential election on the profession.
“We don’t know what the police had put forward to the judges, and [the] provisions of the law under which the warrants were issued. There were multiple warrants issued by different judges, meaning there is reason to believe the judges did not know the depth of the situation.”
“In the past year, we’ve seen a presidential candidate that has attacked directly journalism, journalists, and media, and this is something that has never been seen before in the history of presidential elections,” said Locher. “He has threatened to sue journalists, put into question whether the laws that protect free press are even founded and good, and this person today [will be] the president of the United States.”
“It’s problematic because Donald Trump is the first presidential candidate to outright declare war on the media,” Potter added. “Going to war against the media rhetorically is a long standing political practice, John Diefenbaker who was Prime Minister back in the 1950s and 60s famously said ‘everyone is against me except for the people.’”
“However, it’s one thing to believe that the media has a bias against you, versus inciting violence against reporters,” he said.
The panelists found that the threat of police surveillance and infringement on freedom of the press continue to be important issues today, although many thought those days were over.
“We are in this business because we believe that somehow there is right and wrong, and somehow we can make things right by reporting on things that matter to society,” Pineau told the crowd. “We may be a bit naive, but we like to believe people do the best they can no matter what job they have, and we never would have thought that the police would be doing this to us.”