Surveillance state

Published June 4, 2023

In the midst of the madness, finally some sanity. Questions critical to the right to privacy of citizens bombarded of late by audio leaks involving all and sundry, have been articulated by the Islamabad High Court.

On Wednesday, Justice Babar Sattar suspended the summons issued by a parliamentary committee to Najam Saqib, son of retired Supreme Court chief justice Saqib Nisar, in a case involving an audio leak of a purported phone conversation between the former and a PTI ticket aspirant.

In the clip, Mr Saqib can allegedly be heard demanding a reward from a man in return for Mr Nisar’s successful efforts in securing a ticket for this individual to contest the Punjab elections. Filing a petition in the IHC, Mr Saqib challenged the “legality and validity” of the National Assembly Speaker’s decision to constitute a committee to investigate a phone call between two private individuals. Justice Sattar in his seven-page order has raised a number of pertinent questions for the government to answer.

In a nutshell, the court’s queries centre around whether the Constitution allows the executive to surveil or record phone calls or telecommunication between private citizens. If so, what law authorises such recording? And if not, then which “public authority or agency” is to be held liable for taking these measures?

The government knows well the answers to these questions. But in the vulgar brand of ‘gotcha’ politics that passes for statesmanship today, it has served up private citizens’ personal conversations — and of late, even intimate videos — to the public at large in order to embarrass, pressure and blackmail political opponents.

That also explains the narrow mandate given to the three-member judicial commission — since suspended — which was set up to probe solely the veracity, not the source, of the audio leaks pertaining to serving and former judges. The government notification issued in connection said that the audio leaks had “eroded public trust” in the superior judiciary. What about the erosion of public trust in the state to uphold people’s fundamental rights to liberty and privacy? The ability to surveil and record individuals bestows a level of power that must be used strictly within the bounds of the law; unchecked, it can tear apart societies.

It was to regulate this power and apply it lawfully that the Fair Trial Act, 2012, was enacted. This authorised the state to intercept private communications in order to track suspected terrorists and present incriminating conversations as evidence in court. Other individuals do not qualify for surveillance, however questionable their personal conduct may be.

The outcome of the IHC’s proceedings could be one of those momentous events that shape a nation’s history. Have we the capacity to evolve as a society where people’s civil liberties are considered sacrosanct, or will we continue our descent towards an existence where almost nothing is sacred?

Published in Dawn, June 4th, 2023

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