Ottawa should protect press
When it was revealed last week that Montreal police had been spying on Patrick Lagacé, a columnist for La Presse newspaper, in an effort to uncover his sources, we decried the practice as a “troubling threat to freedom of the press” that was “unprecedented in Canadian history.” It turns out we were only half right: it was indeed troubling, but hardly unprecedented.
In the week since, it has come to light that, in fact, at least 10 other reporters in Quebec have had their cellphones surveilled by local or provincial police since 2008, some for more than five years. In the wake of these alarming disclosures, the province has announced that it will launch a public inquiry into press freedom and police surveillance of journalists.
That’s a welcome development, especially as crucial questions remain about the possible complicity of some politicians and senior police officials in the spying. But the problem is not limited to Quebec. The revelations have also exposed a gap in the federal law that protects journalists and their sources — one that Ottawa should move quickly to bridge.
It should not surprise us that police were tempted to spy on journalists to expedite their investigations. What’s more concerning is that several justices issued warrants that, based on what we know, seem to be inconsistent with the spirit of the Supreme Court’s rulings on the protection of journalistic sources.
In each case, the journalist being monitored was suspected of nothing untoward. He or she was privy to no imminent threats to public safety. Rather, the journalists in question were simply doing their job: telling stories that happened to be embarrassing to the police or to government. The warrants appear to have been sought to identify existing whistleblowers and intimidate prospective ones. Given the chilling effect such surveillance is likely to have on the media, it’s hard to conclude that, on balance, democracy was well served by the decisions.
Moreover, the Supreme Court has said journalists should be able to protect their sources if they can show doing so is in the public interest. No such opportunity was provided to them. It seems that neither legislation nor jurisprudence provides sufficient protection for the journalist-source relationship that the top court has said serves a “vital role” in democracy.
No one would speak to a reporter if they believed he or she was unable to protect a source or, worse, was collecting information on behalf of police. Journalists must be free to seek the truth from all manner of sources — whistleblowers and criminals included — to keep the public informed on the issues that matter.
That’s why Ottawa should take seriously the suggestion of Sen. André Pratte, a former editorial page editor at La Presse, who is calling on the government to convene a Senate-Commons committee to study the current safeguards for journalists and their sources and quickly suggest improvements. The existing legislation was written before technology vastly expanded both the set of journalistic tools and the state’s ability to spy on them. It should be updated for the digital world.
The recent stories out of Quebec raise important questions about troubling police practices in that province and to what extent politicians were involved. A public inquiry is the right response. But the protection in law of freedom of the press is a matter of national importance. Ottawa should do its part.