Montreal police, investigating the possibility of crooked cops on the force, obtained warrants to surveil a journalist's iPhone, and even obtained permission to use his GPS chip to track his whereabouts at all time.
But the federal minister of public safety, Ralph Goodale, stopped short of discouraging police forces from going to the courts to obtain judicial orders against journalists.
Asked directly by NDP Member of Parliament Matthew Dubé on Monday about whether he'll issue a directive to create more formal rules around how police deal with journalists, Goodale would only say that "we take the freedom of the press in this country very, very seriously."
Dubé raised the question after on Monday after Montreal newspaper La Presse published details on surveillances warrants, at least 24 in total, obtained to surveil journalist Patrick Lagacé. The MP also referenced another case, where federal police are working to obtain chat records from a VICE journalist's cell phone, as evidence that action needs to be taken.
Lagacé, who works at La Presse, had been in contact with Faycal Djelidi, a Montreal police officer under investigation for a number of crimes, including perjury and obstruction of justice. When Lagacé's number popped up on Djelidi's phone, the Montreal police obtained the initial surveillance warrants for the journalist's device.
The Montreal police contend that, while their judicial authorization allowed them to access the GPS chip in Lagacé's phone, they used that power "never," or "nearly never," according to La Presse. The surveillance order would allow police to see the numbers for his incoming and outgoing calls and texts.
Costa Labos, head of internal affairs for the police service, confirmed that he green lit the practise, but defended the investigation.
"I understand that certain people could have been offended or disturbed by the fact that their telephone was [the object of surveillance], but we have to do our work," he told the newspaper.
Labos was, himself, subject to an internal affairs investigation after he was accused of lying to a judge to obtain a search warrant. Djieldi, for his part, is still facing trial on nine charges.
The case, just one of many instances of Canadian cops investigating journalists in recent years, shows how willing police are to compromise journalist's protection of their sources, La Presse said in a statement.
"In Canada, police bodies just seem to ignore the fundamental rules," said Éric Trottier, a vice president at the media company. "We have to put an end to what seems like a total witch hunt against journalistic sources."
Aside from the investigation into Lagacé, national and local police have been criticized repeatedly in recent years for expanding their investigations to include journalists.
VICE Canada is currently appealing a 2015 production order, upheld by an Ontario court, that would force national security reporter Ben Makuch to hand over transcripts of his conversation with suspected Islamic State fighter Farah Shirdon to the RCMP.
More recently, it emerged that Joel-Denis Bellavance and Gilles Toupin, also at La Presse, were followed by RCMP officers operating under their own authority, as the investigators tried to find the source of an intelligence whistleblower. In another case, from September, a Montreal court order authorized police to seize the computer of Journal de Montreal reporter Michael Nguyen, after he published surveillance video of a judge behaving erratically.
Canada has laws that protect journalists' relationship with their sources, like many American states have.
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