The age of audio leaks

Published April 26, 2023
The writer is an author and journalist.
The writer is an author and journalist.

THE season of audiotape leaks is upon us, giving a sordid twist to power politics in the country. The leaked private telephonic conversations are not only being used to undermine political rivals but also to discredit state institutions and public office holders. Even judges and their families are not spared this baseness. It is only getting uglier.

It is not hard to guess who is behind the illegal phone-tapping and audio leaks. It seems that no one, in or out of public office, has been spared. The new audiotape leak purportedly featuring a private telephonic conversation between two ladies — one of them said to be closely related to the top judge — has resulted in a political maelstrom. The purported discussion revolved around the current situation and the apex court’s ruling on the Punjab elections.

The timing of the leak is curious. The conversation has been leaked at a time when a Supreme Court bench, headed by the CJP, is to resume hearing the petition against the delay in the Punjab Assembly elections. The case appears to have brought the CJP and a defiant parliament face to face over the issue of the release of funds to the Election Commission required by the court to conduct the polls on May 14. The situation has intensified the clash of institutions, worsening the political crisis.

Unsurprisingly, the PDM government is using the leaked audiotape to whip up its campaign against the CJP. Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah wants suo motu notice to be taken of the audio leak. “The audio has concerning impacts on the country,” he has been quoted as saying. Some federal ministers have also demanded that the CJP step down.

Illegal wiretapping must be stopped and the power of the intelligence agencies checked.

It is obvious that the audiotapes of the two private citizens were leaked with the approval of the ruling coalition seeking to increase pressure on the judge. While demanding the court take notice of the leaked conversation, the interior minister has no answer to the question about the illegal phone-tapping itself. Under whose order have the agencies been carrying out such unlawful activity? It is a criminal offence.

The entire episode also brings into question the role of the intelligence agencies. They are certainly not free agents and are a part of the security establishment. It is evident that the latest spree of audio leaks, mainly targeting PTI leaders, is part of a clear political agenda. The latest leaks simply reinforce the impression that the agencies are deeply involved in the ongoing game of power politics.

It may not be for the first time that the telephones of prominent political leaders and other public office holders have been tapped by the intelligence agencies. However, the trend shows no let-up. In fact, the brazen use of audiotapes as a political tool to undermine political leaders has been on the rise. Even audiotapes of meetings at the Prime Minister’s Office have been leaked.

One such incident occurred late last year when an audiotape of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s conversation with some of his aides was leaked. He ordered an investigation into the matter. But the government seems to have no problem with wiretapping when it comes to rival political leaders and officials, including judges. Some apex court judges have in the past complained about being monitored by the intelligence agencies.

It is shocking to see such frequent leaks, including of former top judges. The ongoing political power struggle and weakening of the rule of law has allowed the intelligence agencies greater space in which to operate. The political system has virtually become hostage to the intelligence agencies. Nothing could be more shameful for a civilian government than to allow and justify the wiretapping of rival political leaders and officials.

It is not just about the PDM government but also Imran Khan, who is now the main target of these machinations. He too had few reservations when such methods were used against rival party leaders when he was in power. Now, as he is feeling the heat, the former prime minister is calling on the Supreme Court to take action.

“They recorded my conversations as the prime minister and released them. The Supreme Court should now take a step on it,” Khan said in a recent statement. He should have acted to stop it while in power, instead of justifying similar actions against opponents.

What has given the intelligence agencies a free hand is the worsening political divide. While the government is delighted over the recent audiotape leaks, it forgets that its own leaders too are being watched by the intelligence agencies and similar leaks could be used to undermine the coalition parties.

It is a dangerous game that could destroy the entire political system and damage the state institutions. The PDM’s personalised campaign against the chief justice could deepen the divide within the judiciary, harming the system. There may be nothing wrong in questioning some actions of the CJP that have been regarded as controversial, and calling for reform in judicial procedures. But resorting to dirty tricks to try and malign the top judiciary is extremely harmful for the entire system.

The political beliefs of a relative must not be used to question the integrity and impartiality of a judge. The politics of confrontation has only strengthened the security establishment. It is not for the apex court to resolve political issues and curb illegal actions of the intelligence agencies; it is for the political leadership to stop this violation of democratic fundamental human rights. Illegal wiretapping must be stopped and the power of the intelligence agencies checked.

With the state experiencing a breakdown in political power and law enforcement, we are heading towards a state of complete anarchy. We may not yet fall under the category of ‘failed state’ but are fast moving towards it, with the collapsing authority of the state and the latter’s inability to provide governance.

The growing trend of audio leaks is a symptom of a fragile state that is unable to protect the basic human and democratic rights of the people. The increasing power of the intelligence agencies and the security establishment is nothing short of ominous.

The writer is an author and journalist.
zhussain100@yahoo.com
Twitter: @hidhussain

Published in Dawn, April 26th, 2023

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