MONTREAL — As Quebec announced plans Thursday to hold an inquiry into freedom of the press and police surveillance of journalists, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said spying on reporters is not happening at the federal level.
The Quebec government said a public inquiry will be held against the backdrop of revelations that various forces monitored reporters' phones for years.
A panel of experts that was announced earlier this week will have all the powers typically granted to a commission of inquiry, including being able to compel witnesses to testify, said Justice Minister Stephanie Vallee.
"We consider it's important for the population of Quebec to trust their public institutions," she said.
On Thursday, some of the reporters targeted by provincial police learned that authorities obtained years worth of phone logs.
Meanwhile, the controversy reverberated in Ottawa, where Trudeau said monitoring of journalists does not take place.
Trudeau told reporters he immediately contacted RCMP and CSIS leadership after news broke about the Quebec surveillance.
"There is nothing of this sort happening at the federal level," he said.
"We have actually very strong safeguards and protections in place to protect freedom of the press in the course of the business conducted by CSIS and the RCMP.
"Not only is freedom of the press important, it's one of the foundational safeguards of a free democracy, of a free society."
Quebec's two largest police forces admitted this week to keeping tabs on the phones of several journalists in recent years in attempts to identify the source of information leaks.
On Wednesday, provincial police said they had obtained court warrants to monitor the phones of six journalists in 2013 in an effort to track down a person alleged to have leaked sensitive wiretap information involving a prominent labour leader.
On Thursday, some of those reporters were contacted by police and told the scope of the monitoring went far beyond what they'd thought.
Radio-Canada said police gained access in 2013 to phone records belonging to three senior journalists between November 2008 and October 2013. That period coincided with reports by the CBC's French-language network on numerous corruption- and construction-related probes.
Le Journal de Montreal said police obtained the phone log for one of its reporters between February 2009 and October 2013, while La Presse said police targeted two of their own journalists for six and 15 months respectively.
In an interview on Montreal radio station 98.5FM, provincial police director Martin Prud'homme said he's asked lawyers to unseal the warrants to provide details about them.
Spying on journalists is not a method Prud'homme said he supports.
"I'm not OK with how we conducted this investigation," he said. "I think we could have done this investigation in a different way, without going after journalists' telephone logs."
Premier Philippe Couillard's decision to form the committee of experts followed revelations Montreal police kept tabs on the iPhone of a La Presse reporter.
The newspaper reported this week it had learned at least 24 surveillance warrants were issued for Patrick Lagace's phone this year at the request of the police's special investigations unit. That section is responsible for looking into crime within the police force.
La Presse is going to court on Friday to put a seal on the data that was collected.
Also on Thursday, Montreal police said they monitored another reporter in 2014 in a case that was linked to an internal investigation.
Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press