Canadian police have been tracking the cellphones of six investigative journalists, treating them as suspects, media and police officials said. The scandal comes a day after reports emerged revealing that police had also been spying on another journalist.
Marie-Maude Denis and Isabelle Richer, the hosts of the Enquête (Investigation) program, and the show’s former host, Alain Gravel, all confirmed on Twitter that they had been spied on, claiming that the Sûreté du Québec (SQ), also known as the Quebec Provincial Police, had tracked their phones.
“I’ve just learned that my incoming and outgoing calls have been spied on by the Sûreté du Québec in 2013,” Denis wrote on Twitter, while Gravel tweeted: “My turn to get a confirmation that I was targeted by court mandates to obtain a log of my calls by the SQ.”
Je viens d'apprendre que mes appels entrant et sortant ont été espionnés par la Sûreté du Québec en 2013.
— Marie-Maude Denis (@mmdenisrc) November 2, 2016
À mon tour d'avoir la confirmation comme quoi j'ai été visé par des mandats de cour pour obtenir le registre de mes appels par la SQ.
— Alain Gravel (@gravela_rc) November 2, 2016
Police also hacked Eric Thibault from Journal de Montreal, Denis Lessard, from La Presse, and crime journalist André Cédilot, Canadian media reported.
“I find it outrageous, I fell off my chair. I never thought it is possible, and that they [police] would have gone that far,” Lessard said, as cited by Journal de Montreal.
According to Richer, the Canadian journalists initially learned about the spying thanks to “unnamed sources.”
“We still have sources. A source told us today that we were the target of this warrant in 2013, and maybe before. Maybe we were spied for a long period of time. We don’t know because those warrants are still sealed,” she said.
— Patrice Roy (@PatriceRoyTJ) November 2, 2016
Edward Snowden was among those on Twitter reacting to the news.
“Are you a journalist? The police spying on you specifically to ID your sources isn’t a hypothetical. This is today,” he wrote.
— Edward Snowden (@Snowden) November 2, 2016
‘GPS in my phone could locate me at any time’ – La Presse reporter
The spying scandal in Quebec began with reports emerging on Monday, claiming that the phone of La Presse columnist Patrick Lagacé was hacked and police had managed to obtain the details of all his conversations.
“I was flabbergasted because I thought that in this country it takes very, very serious motives to track and spy on a journalist like that – motives that are so serious that’s it’s never happened before,” Lagacé told CBC, adding that his metadata “was transferred to the police.”
“The police had the right to activate the GPS in my phone – to locate me at any time. I lived in this fiction that this could not happen in this country,” he explained.
According to media reports, Quebec police obtained at least 24 warrants in 2016 to track Lagacé’s whereabouts.
“When we start spying on journalists… there are questions to be asked about who the judges are [who are] authorizing these warrants,” he said.
‘One case’ in 20yrs – police
The Sûreté du Québec confirmed the surveillance allegations, but claimed that it had been the only case in 20 years.
“We’re talking about one case, which is one case, too many, but one case going all the way back to 1995,” SQ spokesman Captain Guy Lapointe told CBC Canada, explaining that spying was a part of an investigation that had targeted “different individuals,” and some of those individuals had been “reporters,” but the investigation was closed back in 2014.
“You have to understand that this occurred with the prior administration of the SQ… Any investigation that is targeting a reporter… [now] needs to be authorized by the high direction, and any kind of warrant that would be obtained towards this investigation needs to be approved by the director himself,” he said.
The province of Quebec is planning to launch an administrative inquiry into the case, Quebec Public Security Minister Martin Coiteux said, adding that it will “inspect the police forces and look at the policies in place.” He also said “there could be sanctions.”
Philippe Pichet, the police chief of Quebec’s capital, Montreal, insisted that the “hacking” tactic had been necessary.
“This operation targeted one of our officers and not Mr. Lagacé…The SPVM [Montreal Police Department], and myself, we are very conscientious about the importance of respecting the freedom of the press. However, the SPVM also has the responsibility to carry out investigations on criminal acts – even against police officers,” he said.