Listening in

September 07, 2012


FORMULATING laws can be a tricky exercise; what was formerly illegal can, with the stroke of a pen, be turned legal. Last June, for example, after the outcry over alleged extrajudicial detentions in the northwest, President Asif Ali Zardari signed the Actions (in Aid of Civil Power) Regulations, 2011, pertaining to Fata and Pata that gave a retrospective legal framework to the operations. We seem to be at a similar juncture again. It is no secret that the country’s security and intelligence apparatus have the ability to monitor cellular communications, Internet traffic, and so on. So far, such surveillance has not had legal sanction and information thus gathered is not admissible as evidence. This, security officials argue, leads to the failure to successfully prosecute a large number of suspected terrorists and militants. But the Investigation for Fair Trial Bill, 2012, due to be debated in parliament, authorises the government to tap into people’s phone calls, emails and text messages, etc, and makes such material admissible in court.

The government argues that such powers have been given to law-enforcement agencies in other countries as well. And there is no getting away from the fact that the horror of 9/11 left in its wake a changed world, particularly in terms of counterterrorism legislation and the detention of terror suspects. In Pakistan too, where communications technology has become a key weapon in the arsenal of militants and terrorists, there has existed a need to update the laws to improve the state’s capacity to prosecute suspects. Nevertheless, it must not be forgotten that for the population at large, such intrusions count as a serious loss of civil liberties and have been widely criticised in the developed world too. In giving state agencies wide-ranging powers to monitor citizens’ private lives and conversations, the possibilities of misuse and abuse are immense. Further, Pakistan must be delineated from countries such as the US or UK because of its history of intelligence agencies’ involvement in manipulating political outcomes. To what extent should monitoring powers mentioned in the proposed bill be granted, and to which agencies, should be worth pondering. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Yet while invading privacy is a grave issue, so is terrorism. The bill needs, then, to be scrutinised very carefully with an eye on both civil liberties and the possibility of abuse. There need to be specific accountability and oversight mechanisms, as well as set conditions under which listening in on citizens can be justified. Without such elaborations, there is danger of the proposed laws ending up as tools of harassment and intimidation.