Phone tapping

Published July 6, 2022

IT is the season of audio leaks. No sooner does one ‘incriminating’ clip lose its shock value than another emerges on social media or a TV channel, from what appears to be a cornucopia of illicit recordings of phone conversations — usually serving the ends of whoever is in power. The latest snippet purportedly captures ousted prime minister Imran’s Khan’s wife, the reclusive and ‘non-political’ Bushra Bibi, instructing the PTI’s head of digital media Dr Arsalan Khalid to trend a ‘traitor’ hashtag on Twitter targeting people speaking against her husband, herself and her friend, Farah Shahzadi. Another recording obtained through phone tapping, say PTI leaders themselves, is about to surface — this one of a conversation between Mr Khan and his then principal secretary Azam Khan. On Monday at a press conference, former human rights minister Shireen Mazari called on the Supreme Court to take suo motu notice of the tapping of the former premier’s phone.

While Dr Khalid has been non-committal about the authenticity of the latest audio leak, PTI’s Shahbaz Gill has termed it a fabrication. That, however, is missing the wood for the trees. Phone tapping is illegal and has been declared so on several occasions. In 1997, the Supreme Court ruled the practice as violating the dignity of an individual and their constitutional right to privacy. Exceptions have been made: the Fair Trial Act 2012 allows security agencies to collect evidence by means of modern techniques, including wiretapping, but only for the purpose of tracking and prosecuting suspected terrorists. Nevertheless, it is an open secret that the country’s intelligence agencies tap the phones of many individuals — politicians, journalists and judges in particular — that fall outside that category. In June 2015, the ISI informed an apex court bench that it had tapped nearly 7,000 phones in the previous month, while IB said it had tapped close to 5,500 around the same time. Earlier this year, Maryam Nawaz, after the recording of a discussion between her and PML-N’s Pervez Rashid was leaked, demanded an apology and asked who had the right to tap her private conversation. Given that politicians across the board have been burned by this unlawful and untrammelled use of phone tapping, it seems worthwhile for all to desist from political point-scoring through leaked audios. It speaks to the the bankruptcy of our political discourse and the weakness of our accountability mechanisms that such tactics are used to discredit rivals.

Published in Dawn, July 6th, 2022

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