Op-Ed

Police forces should not be able to spy on journalists, especially with weak evidence. Photo: Jaclyn McRae-Sadik.

Society needs people to speak out, and free journalism is needed for that very purpose

News recently came out that the Montreal police had been spying on la Presse journalist Patrick Lagacé in order to find out which member of their department was leaking information to the media. It goes without saying that this is completely unacceptable.

Remember, freedom of the press is enshrined in the second article of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Police spying on journalists is a clear violation of that fundamental freedom. It sets a dangerous precedent that the press is just a tool that the state can use for its own means.

Journalism also requires trust. A source needs to be able to give information to a journalist and trust that that person will use the information properly and protect the source’s identity. Police spying on journalists is nothing less than an invasion into that sphere of trust and harms the ability of the journalist to do their job properly.

As well, this espionage also targets whistleblowers, and a healthy society needs these brave individuals to function. Public officials, heads of businesses and the like often want to hide information, claiming national security, legal requirements, or internal policy. While transparency should have some limits, when it comes to corporations and governments it should be almost unlimited.

Far too often, organizations use whatever flimsy excuse they can muster to hide information that the public should know. This is especially true for organizations that are supposed to serve the public good and for a democratic society. Pretending to have people’s best interests at heart and then refusing to let them know what you do is hypocrisy to the highest degree. Whistleblowers help prevent abuse like this, which is why we need more of them, not less.

A healthy civil society is one where information flows freely, not where information stays hidden from the people it affects. This kind of police spying attacks whistleblowers, and it only serves to maintain an indecent shroud of secrecy that ultimately makes a mockery of our society and the people that the police are supposed to serve.

Despite this gross invasion of civil liberties, Philippe Pichet, Montreal’s police chief, said that all the necessary laws were respected went it comes to their monitoring of Lagacé. But just because you follow the law doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re doing a good thing. In this case, it only shows that the laws should be changed.

Canada needs to have much stronger laws protecting not only the freedom of press, but other key elements of a healthy civil society, including whistleblowers.

On top of that, it doesn’t appear that Lagacé did anything wrong or even illegal. This means that the police targeted an innocent man. It’s not a good sign for our society if the police can intrude into our lives whenever they want. Again, the right not to suffer from unreasonable search or seizure is protected under section 8 of the Charter.

Policing by consent—the idea that the police are just citizens with powers trusted to them through the consent of their society—should be a fundamental principle of any police force. Spying on journalists is not just an attack on the freedom of the press, nor just a symptom of an unhealthy society—it is also a failure to abide by the most basic principles of policing. It must stop.