The provincial Quebec government announced Thursday that a public inquiry into freedom of the press and police surveillance of journalists will be launched amid revelations various forces monitored reporters’ phones. The province’s two largest police forces said earlier this week that they had monitored the phones of six prominent journalists in 2013 in an effort to track down a person alleged to have leaked sensitive wiretap information involving a prominent labor leader.
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On Thursday, some of those reporters were contacted by police and told the scope of the monitoring went far beyond what they’d thought.
Radio-Canada said police gained access in 2013 to phone records belonging to three senior journalists between November 2008 and October 2013. That period coincided with reports by the CBC’s French-language network on numerous corruption- and construction-related probes.
Le Journal de Montreal said police obtained the phone log for one of its reporters between February 2009 and October 2013, while La Presse said police targeted two of their journalists for six and 15 months respectively.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the surveillance reports “troubling.”
“Not only is freedom of the press important, it’s one of the foundational safeguards of a free democracy, of a free society,” Trudeau said.
Trudeau said he has received assurances from federal policing agencies that no actions are taking place on their part that infringe on the rights of reporters.
Justice Minister Stephanie Vallee said Thursday that a panel of experts will have all the powers typically granted to a commission of inquiry, including being able to compel witnesses to testify.
Earlier on Thursday, Parti Quebecois member Stephane Bergeron, the public security minister at the time of the provincial police surveillance, stepped down as Opposition critic in the field, saying he feared becoming a distraction to the party. A day earlier, Bergeron denied asking that journalists be tracked.
He acknowledged having contacted the provincial police director at the time, Mario Laprise, following a complaint from ex-union boss Michel Arsenault over alleged leaked wiretaps.
Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard announced earlier this week directives to better protect press freedom in the mostly French-speaking province after reports of a separate incident where Montreal police spied on a popular columnist at the newspaper “La Presse” by tracking his cellphone calls, texts and whereabouts.
The French-language newspaper reported this week that it had learned at least 24 surveillance warrants were issued for Patrick 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.
The newspaper is going to court on Friday to put a seal on the data that was collected.