Freedom of the press

Montreal police spying on Patrick Lagacé spotlights threat to all journalists

What happens when someone other than a star columnist is victimized by surveillance?
Photo: The Preiser Project

Naturally, we add our voices to all the heads of newsrooms in Quebec who have denounced the unacceptable behaviour of the Montreal police in monitoring the phone of journalist Patrick Lagacé. These revelations are very worrying for freedom of the press and for the protection of all reporters’ sources. We must, however, point out that smaller scale media outlets, as well as journalists in the shadows of stardom, are even more at risk of this type of situation.

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Editors’ note: This article originally appeared in Ricochet’s French edition and has been translated into English.

Would the journalistic community head to the barricades with the same verve if this involved an unknown journalist, whose name was not as famous, and who did not work in one of the “big” dailies? If it were a matter of an independent journalist, just as capable of carrying out important investigations and with her own sources to protect, anonymous contacts, and delicate subjects to treat with the strictest confidentiality?

Patrick Lagacé, whose work I greatly respect, is a columnist. If he sometimes speaks to vulnerable sources for his humour pieces, he probably does so less often than many investigative journalists, as he himself has written, and as has been revealed today in an article in the Journal de Montréal. And when it is the case, it’s his most fundamental right to not reveal to whom he’s speaking, and if he does speak to sources, that it’s in the most discreet way, without either he or his source worrying that a third party is listening in.

Neither the police nor the courts can stop us from practicing our profession and being at the service of a population hungry for the truth.

This week’s revelations are evidence of a grave threat to privacy and journalism. Despite all of our precautions (encrypted messages, use of TOR, etc.) how can we continue to play our role as a watchdog of democracy if we know or suspect we’re being spied on, and what’s more spied on by an organization that is also supposed to defend the public (a more and more questionable pretence given their actions in recent years, from racial profiling to their behaviour at demonstrations)? How can we guarantee protection to our sources when we ourselves are unsure of our own protection?

Elsewhere in the world, journalists die every day because of what they report from their sources, because of the information they reveal, and because they are spied on from all four corners.

As Chantal Hébert highlighted this morning on ICI Radio-Canada Première (she who, following the events of Meech Lake, was placed under electronic eavesdropping), this event raises serious questions about our justice system. What should we think of a judge who gives the green light to the police to spy on journalists — an authorization, what’s more, coming from an institution that is supposed to serve the public interest. Premier Couillard announced that he would create a committee of experts to evaluate the police. It remains to be seen who will be part of the committee. Because, as we know, it’s often the police that investigates the police, with the kind of results we know. Or, rather, results we won’t know.

As Lagacé himself says, we, including independent media, will continue to do our work, despite all the hurdles. Even if we take more risks, even if we’re not supported by the “big bosses in the press,” if not totally disavowed by them sometimes. Despite all this, our work continues, our sources continue to want to talk to us. Neither the police nor the courts can stop us from practicing our profession and being at the service of a population hungry for the truth.

We can’t reiterate enough the importance of multiple points of view in the media, including that of the independent media which often has the time to investigate and dig up sensitive, and sometimes even dangerous information. And all of this without judicial or professional support in the case of legal hearings and abuses like the one that we saw this week. Therefore, we all have to work together to defend journalistic freedom and denounce this type of situation, no matter where we find ourselves in the media landscape.

No matter how meagre our means might be, it will not stop us from always going further in order to shed light on the numerous issues of the society we live in.

Translated by Jahanzeb Hussain.
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