Canadian police spied on two journalists in 2007 without permission from their bosses, according to a document revealed by the CBC that has raised the ire of journalists and free speech advocates.
The revelation led Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to apologize to the journalists. "It was unacceptable and we've sent our apologies directly to the journalists, and we'll make sure that this doesn't happen again," Trudeau told reporters Wednesday.
The two La Presse journalists were watched by police after a secret document about a terrorism suspect was leaked to the Montreal news outlet. Interested in finding the source of the leak, the RCMP officers conducted human surveillance on the two reporters for nine days. But as the CBC reported, the surveillance was done without permission from managers in the RCMP. After spying on the reporters, the RCMP officers asked for that permission and were told to stop.
Through the Access to Information Act, the CBC obtained a briefing note for Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale that detailed the surveillance of the reporters.
Goodale confirmed the CBC report in a statement Wednesday, saying the RCMP conducted physical surveillance on the journalists without proper authorization for nine days, and that the surveillance contravened a ministerial directive enacted in 2003 outlining the special care needed in investigations involving the media and other fundamental Canadian institutions. "Once RCMP leadership learned of the unauthorized action, that surveillance was immediately terminated," the statement said.
"Upon learning of these events last fall, the Prime Minister asked me to look into them, which I did," the minister's statement said.
'It's scary, no? It's supposed to happen in movies only, not in real life.'
"What happened is unacceptable," the statement continues. "This matter has been handled at the highest levels. The responsible officers have been reprimanded and RCMP leadership has reaffirmed the existing policy, which should have been followed."
One of the La Presse journalists, Joel-Denis Bellevance, told VICE News he learned in November that the RCMP were planning to spy on him — a revelation that gave him a shock at the time.
He's been covering Parliament Hill since 1994, and since then, he's seen a police presence including those in unmarked cars on the Hill. But he said he never imagined the same cars could have followed him through his daily, private life.
"It's scary, no?" he said over the phone Wednesday. "It's supposed to happen in movies only, not in real life."
RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson apologized directly to him in December, and confirmed that Bellevance had been the subject of a surveillance operation for eight or nine days in August 2007. But Paulson didn't tell him he approved a second spy operation in 2008.
"The element that I didn't know that I learned today was the fact that even though Mr. Paulson opposed the actions that were taken by some of the RCMP officers investigating this issue in 2007, he actually approved another surveillance operation in 2008."
That authorized surveillance never occurred, he said, because those in charge of the investigation also wanted to monitor calls in and out of his office to try to identify his source, but Paulson rejected that surveillance, he said.
"Mr. Paulson never mentioned that to me when he met me to apologize that he had personally authorized a second operation."
"He apologized and I accepted his apology then, but today if he were to tell me that he's apologizing but also telling me he at the same authorized a new surveillance operation, I would not have accepted his apology."
After he first wrote the story about the leaked document in late June 2007, Bellevance said he expected law enforcement to serve him with a production order to try to get the leaked document, and was surprised they didn't go through legal channels. La Presse would have fought any such order all the way to the Supreme Court, if necessary, he said.
The surveillance was part of an RCMP investigation dubbed "Project Standard" aimed at discovering the source of the leaked document.
The classified documents released by the court showed the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS) believed the leak came from Citizenship and Immigration Canada, the Canadian Press reported.
The leaked document pertained to suspected terrorist and Moroccan-Canadian citizen Adil Charkaoui, who was arrested in May, 2003 and faced accusations he was an al Qaeda agent. The Canadian government applied a security certificate to Charkaoui, labelling him a security threat, and detained him pending deportation. Charkaoui challenged the constitutionality of that certificate program and won. None of the allegations against him were ever proven in court.
"We can never take anything for granted," Bellevance said of press freedoms in Canada. "It's a given that we have the Charter of Rights [and Freedoms] but there appears to be some elements in some organizations that do not take into account what the Charter says, and try to go around the rules to make sure they can gain access to the information they're seeking, so I find that quite disturbing."
He said he was reassured by Goodale's statement, saying he believes the minister's statement is genuine. "Mr. Goodale is a firm believer of freedom of the press and he will demand accountability as well." Those in charge of the RCMP are accountable for this surveillance, he said.
The CBC's revelations Wednesday led Canadian media and free speech advocates to call out the RCMP for spying on the reporters.
Privacy lawyer David Fraser told VICE News the revelations were "pretty appalling."
"What is most troubling is that though guidelines exists — which is good, it does not appear that there are significant consequences for violating them," he wrote in an email.
"Journalists are not immune from investigation, but it's seriously troubling when a couple officers can go rogue in any area," he said. "We grant the police intrusive powers and put in place checks and balances to ensure they are not abused. But when officers go out on a frolic on their own, there should be real consequences that demonstrate the seriousness of not only the violation itself but also to serve as a deterrent to other officers who may be inclined to 'go rogue.'"
VICE News itself has come under the microscope of the RCMP, with the police force filing to obtain warrants to seize journalist Ben Makuch's cellphone last year. VICE is still fighting that court order, and is preparing an appeal.
Follow Hilary Beaumont on Twitter: @HilaryBeaumont