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A Montreal journalist says he was furious when he learned that city police monitored his iPhone for months in order to find out who he was speaking with.
"I was living in the fiction that police officers wouldn't dare do that, and in the fiction that judges were protecting journalists — and hence the public — against this type of police intrusion," La Presse columnist Patrick Lagacé said in an interview Monday.
"Clearly, I was naive."
The French-language newspaper reported it has learned at least 24 surveillance warrants were issued for Lagacé'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.
Patrick Lagacé espionné par la police https://t.co/2buOcmGNuy— La Presse (@LP_LaPresse) October 31, 2016
Three of those warrants reportedly authorized police to get the phone numbers for all Lagace's incoming and outgoing texts and calls, while another allowed them to track the phone's location via its GPS chip.
Spying by Montreal police denounced as "unequivocal attack"
Lagacé said police told him they obtained the warrants because they believed the target of one of their investigations was feeding him information.
But he said the story in question was actually first reported on by a competitor, leading him to believe the investigation was actually a thinly veiled attempt to learn the identity of his sources within the police department.
"To me, this was a great pretext to try to investigate a reporter who has done numerous stories in the past that have embarrassed the service," he said.
La Presse's vice-president of information, Eric Trottier, strongly condemned the police operation, calling it "an unequivocal attack on the the institution that is La Presse and against the entire journalistic profession."
U.S. intelligence whistleblower Edward Snowden also weighed into the controversy, delivering a warning for all reporters.
"Are you a journalist? The police spying on you specifically to ID your sources isn't a hypothetical. This is today," Swowden wrote on his Twitter account.
Lagacé also poked fun at the Montreal police director's Twitter account, noting that it featured a message that it wasn't monitoring everything going on 24 hours a day or seven days a week.
"I find this messaging ironic this morning," Lagacé wrote.
Meantime, the outgoing head of internal affairs for the Montreal police confirmed to La Presse he authorized the surveillance.
Costa Labos told La Presse he didn't believe any other journalists had been the object of surveillance in recent years but he couldn't guarantee it.
He refused to say whether Montreal's police chief was aware of the operation.
Spying was part of internal probe into allegations against anti-gang squad
The surveillance was ordered as part of an internal probe into allegations police anti-gang investigators fabricated evidence.
Five police officers were arrested this summer and two were charged as a result.
Lagacé said the newspaper is contesting the legality of the warrants and will try to retrieve the information collected by police.
La Presse hasn't decided whether it will pursue further legal action, Lagacé said.
Ralph Goodale defends freedom of press as "fundamental Canadian value"
But several politicians publicly denounced the spying, including Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre and Quebec's International Relations, Culture, and Communications Minister Christine St-Pierre, herself a former journalist at Radio-Canada.
In Ottawa, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale defended freedom of the press as a fundamental Canadian value, but declined to comment on the specific details of the case.
"The case you referred to is under provincial jurisdiction but at the federal level there’s an explicit ministerial directive that recognizes the great sensitivities involved when journalism intersects with investigations," Goodale told reporters outside of the House of Commons. "Journalism is fundamental to the well-being of this country. Freedom of the press is a protected value under the Charter of Rights and we respect that enormously... We’ve stated our position federally that freedom of the press is an absolutely fundamental Canadian value."