Prime Minister Justin Trudeau found Quebec police surveillance of journalists so "troubling" that he asked the RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) for assurances they weren't spying on members of the press.
Following revelations that judges authorized Quebec police to surveil seven journalists, Trudeau told reporters on Thursday that the press is "absolutely critical" in a free democracy and he was satisfied the federal police force and spy agency weren't conducting similar operations.
"We have actually strong safeguards and protections in place to protect the freedom of the press in the course of business conducted by CSIS and the RCMP," the prime minister said. "And I can confirm those safeguards are still very much in place and consistent with the values and concerns this government has and that Canadians have."
Trudeau's comments follow the disclosure Monday that the Montreal police tapped the phone and tracked the location of a La Presse reporter. The scandal intensified Wednesday after it was revealed the provincial police were also keeping tabs on reporters.
Sûreté du Québec spokesman Capt. Guy Lapointe confirmed Wednesday the force spent months searching the phone records of six journalists.
Lapointe would not confirm the names of the journalists targeted, but various news reports have identified current and former La Presse reporters Denis Lessard and Andre Cedilot, Presse Canadienne's Isabelle Richer, Radio Canada reporters Alain Gravel and Marie-Maude Denis, and the Journal's Éric Thibault.
A Quebec judge authorized police to obtain the reporters' phone records in the fall of 2013 after then-SQ director Mario Laprise ordered his lieutenants to find the source of leaked information appearing in the news, the Journal reports.
Before those orders were handed down, reporters had revealed the force's electronic surveillance of Michel Arsenault—then the head of the Fédération des Travailleurs du Québec, the province's largest labour federation—as part of a corruption probe of the province's construction industry.
Arsenault wrote a letter-of-complaint to then-public security minister Stéphane Bergeron, who called Laprise to ask that he look into the matter.
Within hours of that phone call, Laprise assigned officers in the force's internal affairs department to find the source of the leak, leading to the warrants to obtain the journalists' phone records, the Journal reports.
For months, officers poured over phone records, tracking who the journalists were communicating with.
The investigation was closed in the summer of 2014 with no charges laid.
On Thursday, Bergeron stepped down as the Parti Quebecois public safety critic. The move was announced as a temporary measure and Bergeron said he had only asked Laprise to look into the leaks within the police force, not to target journalists with surveillance.
SQ Director Martin Prud'homme told reporters he was unaware the force surveilled reporters before it was reporter yesterday. He asked Quebec's Ministry of Public Security to investigate and said the force was taking steps to destroy the phone logs of the six reporters.
It was the second time this week a Quebec police force was found to have spied on journalists.
The Montreal police obtained at least 24 warrants to surveil La Presse' Patrick Lagacé's iPhone and use his GPS chip to track his location, as VICE reported Monday.
Since then, Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre has ordered the city's public security commission to hold a closed-door inquiry into the conduct of the force and its chief.
Quebec Premier Phillippe Couillard ordered that any police requests to monitor a journalist be sent to Crown prosecutors at the Directeur Des Poursuites Criminelles Et Pénales to determine if they are legitimate criminal probes. And he announced the province would form a panel of police officers, journalists, and a judge with power to call witnesses.
Late on Thursday afternoon, the Montreal police announced there was at least one other reporter whose phone activity they monitored, and they were still examining past cases to see if any other admissions would be necessary.
At the prime minister's press conference, Trudeau said the identity of journalists' sources must be protected.
"The need for journalists to be able to do their job of challenging authority, of informing the public and protecting confidential sources, is an essential part of ensuring that our democracy does its fullest job in protecting individual and Canadians' rights," the prime minister said.
Trudeau said governments must reflect how to better ensure the protection of the press in the wake of the admissions from Quebec police.
"I'm open to the discussion that I'm sure is going to be had in many levels of government in the coming weeks," Trudeau said. "But I won't pre-empt any of those discussions with guesses of what might come of it."
There is currently no blanket protection for journalists' sources under Canadian law and the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled courts will determined on a case-by-case basis if a reporter must reveal their source.
Despite the prime minister's assurance the state security apparatus is a bastion of press freedom, the RCMP has repeatedly sought reporters' files and the names of their sources.
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 to the RCMP transcripts of his conversation with suspected Islamic State fighter Farah Shirdon.
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.
With files from Justin Ling
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