• Newly promulgated SRO gives legal cover to phone tapping, interception by intelligence officers
• Opposition leader calls move ‘draconian’ and ‘unconstitutional’, predicts treasury benches ‘will be among its first victims’
• Law minister says powers will only be used in criminal, terror or national security-related cases; assures assembly citizens’ privacy will be protected

ISLAMABAD: The government’s move to authorise officers of the country’s premier spy agency to int­e­rcept and record telephone calls in the interest of ‘national security’ elicited vociferous criticism from the opposition, on Tuesday.

A day earlier, the cabinet had approved an SRO allowing Inter-Services Int­e­lligence officers of grade 18 and above to be nominated to engage in eavesdropping and interception of calls through any telecommunication system.

The authorisation was issued under Section 54(1) of the Pakistan Telecomm­u­nication (Re-Organisa­tion) Act, 1996, which states: “Notwithstanding anything contained in any law for the time being in force, in the interest of national security or in the apprehension of any offence, the Federal Government may authorise any person or persons to intercept calls and messages or to trace calls through any telecommunication system.”

During Tuesday’s sitting of the National Assembly, Leader of the Opposition Omar Ayub raised objections over the SRO, terming it a draconian law and predicting that members from the treasury benches would become its ‘first victims’. He said the law, which could also allow spy agencies to keep tabs on social media accounts, would mean giving them the power to control free speech.

In his remarks, parts of which were repeatedly muted on the official livestream of National Assembly proceedings, the opposition leader declared his party’s intention to challenge the SRO. “Only a fascist government would grant an intelligence agency complete authority to tap citizens’ phones,” he remarked, adding that by promulgating such a measure, the prime minister had “cut his own throat”.

He said the SRO would become a tool in the hands of intelligence agencies, which could be used to blackmail and subjugate all politicians and media persons.

“This SRO is unconstitutional and against the fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution,” he protested.

Govt defends move

Defending the move, Law Minister Azam Nazeer Tarar insisted there was nothing new in the SRO, and that the law under which it was promulgated had been in force since 1996, referring to the Pakistan Tele­communication (Re-Organi­sa­tion) Act.

Under its provisions, he said, the federal government was empowered to authorise any person to intercept calls and messages or trace calls through any communication system.

“Law enforcement and intelligence agencies operate under this law whenever access to some data or interception is required,” he remarked, recalling that Benazir Bhutto’s assassins were also tracked down using similar methods.

He said the law had existed for 28 years, during which time Mr Ayub had also remained part of the ruling setup. Five governments came and went, and the country even witnessed a martial law during this period, but none of them had changed the provision.

Mr Tarar also tried to reassure members that the law would only be used for counterterrorism operations, in cases involving national security and to detect crimes, adding that the ISI had been asked to provide names of officers above Grade 18.

Reading out from a cabinet summary, he said that such authorisation will enhance harmonisation and coordination with law enforcement agencies, thereby promoting a more integrated and effective approach to addressing national security threats, including the menace of terrorism.

“Such interception in telecommunication system will legally enable the agencies to receive information on possible threats and take effective measures to mitigate such threats, and to apprehend the culprits”, he said.

“All actions initiated, processed and executed, as the case may be. In the interest of national security shall also be deemed to have been done…under the law”. However, the law minister said the private lives of citizens and their privacy will be taken care of and those misusing the law will face action.

Deploring criticism of the move, he recalled that such provisions also existed in British law, and said the constitutional scheme has to be followed if the country is to be run.

However, Mr Ayub insisted that a 2013 legislation superseded the law the minister was referring to. “You cannot tap anybody’s phone willy-nilly,” he remarked.

Published in Dawn, July 10th, 2024

Opinion

Editorial

Royal tantrum
Updated 20 Jul, 2024

Royal tantrum

The PML-N's confrontational stance and overt refusal to respect courts orders on arguably flimsy pretexts is a dangerous sign.
Bangladesh chaos
Updated 20 Jul, 2024

Bangladesh chaos

The unfortunate events playing out in Bangladesh should serve as a warning sign for other South Asian states.
Fitch’s estimate
20 Jul, 2024

Fitch’s estimate

FITCH seems to be more optimistic about Pakistan accelerating its economic growth rate to 3.2pc during this fiscal...
Misplaced priorities
Updated 19 Jul, 2024

Misplaced priorities

The government must call its APC at the earliest and invite all stakeholders to take part; this matter cannot be delayed further.
Oman terror attack
19 Jul, 2024

Oman terror attack

THE normally peaceful sultanate of Oman was shaken by sectarian terrorism on Monday when militants belonging to the...
Urban flooding
19 Jul, 2024

Urban flooding

THE provincial authorities have been taking precautionary measures, or so we have been told, to cope with emergency...