Earlier this week, the Service de police de la Ville de Montréal (SPVM) revealed that it had been monitoring the phone of La Presse journalist Patrick Lagacé, who was believed to have been in touch with a police officer suspected of fabricating evidence. The aim of this surveillance was to reveal Lagacé’s sources, and police chief Philippe Pichet has attempted to justify the surveillance by saying it can be used “under exceptional circumstances.” 24 surveillance warrants for Lagacé’s phone were issued by courts this year, which allowed the SPVM to track incoming and outgoing numbers, as well as to monitor the phone’s location. These surveillance tactics go beyond an invasion of Lagacé’s personal privacy. Surveilling journalists hampers their freedom to critique and hold state actors accountable, and impedes the protection of their sources. The surveillance of journalists, even under purported “exceptional circumstances,” is a symptom of the normalization of government surveillance, which must be challenged.
The SPVM has a history of suppressing freedom of the press, and shows little inclination to change. Pichet launched a questionable investigation to “crack down on media links” in June 2016 in response to media coverage of the investigation of unethical behaviour within the SPVM. As a result, many journalists have had their phones tapped, and more are coming forward each day. However, Pichet claims that Lagacé was the only journalist under surveillance. Lagacé told the CBC that this is “an attempt to intimidate members of the police force who want to share information with journalists.” Moreover, the way in which these search warrants are obtained shows clear abuse of the judicial process. The SPVM has been accused of seeking out judges who will ensure their requests are granted. “[This] raises the debate of the independence of all the powers in our society,” Quebec’s Public Security Minister Martin Coiteux said in an interview with the CBC. The SPVM blurs the boundaries between city hall and the police force, wielding their consolidated power to undermine people’s right to privacy, and freedom of the press.
Lagacé’s story is just one example in a larger history of state surveillance, in which many cases go unnoticed. A month ago, Michael Nguyen, a Montreal journalist, had his laptop seized by provincial police because he was reporting on a judge’s alleged abusive misconduct. Backlash ensued, and a unanimous vote to protect journalists was conducted by the provincial legislature shortly after. However, despite public support of journalists, the provincial police force continues to use their power to control information and suppress freedom. Bill 87 was introduced to the Quebec National Assembly in February to “facilitate the discourse of wrongdoing within public bodies,” but failed to protect whistleblowers from unwarranted police surveillance. The lack of legal resistance to police inspection lends itself to the idea that surveillance has become normalized. Surveillance has been used by police forces and governments alike to control information and violate individual rights and freedoms. With the aggressive expansion of the surveillance apparatus, we must call into question the legal and ethical basis of such surveillance, and recognize the divide it perpetuates between the state and the people.
Whistleblowers and journalists are necessary to disseminate information and hold the state accountable. The SPVM, through their surveillance of Patrick Lagacé, has abused its power and undermined the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The culture of state surveillance is an issue that affects every member of society; it needs to be structurally recognized and collectively challenged. Starting in Montreal, laws must be enacted to protect whistleblowers from surveillance, and the process for police to obtain search warrants must be given greater scrutiny.