Pakistan News

Analysis: Tales of the ‘leaked’ tapes

Pakistan’s former first lady Bushra Bibi has become the latest victim of a series of audio and video leaks, which seem to have become a norm in the country’s political scene.

As it transpired in nearly all previous instances, the nation saw the victims — in this case the PTI — immediately dubbing the audio clips “fake and concocted”, while the beneficiaries — the ruling PML-N — trying to prove their authenticity for the sake of political mileage.

In the middle of all this, what was completely ignored were the issues of civil liberty and the fundamental rights of citizens.

A similar situation had emerged last month, when an audio recording purported to be the tape of a telephonic conversation between PPP leader Asif Ali Zardari and property tycoon Malik Riaz was widely publicised, in which the latter could be heard telling Mr Zardari that the PTI chairman was desperate for a “patch-up”. As expected, the PTI refuted it immediately, whereas the PPP preferred to keep mum on the issue, ostensibly due to political expediency.

Addressing a news conference in Islamabad the other day, former human rights minister Dr Shireen Mazari had asked the Supreme Court to take notice of the practice of phone-tapping, recalling that the apex court had previously ruled that tapping phones during official and private conversations was “unacceptable”.

The most interesting response came from PTI’s Fawad Chaudhry, who challenged authorities to register a case against Bushra Bibi so that she could respond to the allegations in the wake of the audio leak attributed to her, where she is purportedly heard asking the party’s social media head to run a social media trend against the PTI’s political opponents.

Being a lawyer, Mr Chaudhry probably knows that no one will come forward to try and substantiate the clip’s authenticity, which is the basic requirement to proceed in such cases.

Legal experts also say that if the government registers a case, it will definitely have to tell the courts about the source of the audio recording, as well as the authority which gave permission to tap the phone calls.

Those in the know say that these leaks are aimed at causing political damage instead of creating legal hurdles, since pursuing such cases would mean putting the country’s powerful intelligence agencies in the dock.

But the tale of the tape is nothing new for observers of Pakistan’s politics; similar tapes have cropped up several times in the past, but the judiciary could not even proceed against those leaks involving serving judges — starting from Justice Qayyum to former chief justice of Pakistan Saqib Nisar — let alone those involving political figures.

Besides, the audio and video leaks of former accountability judge Arshad Malik and those of retired Justice Javed Iqbal, are also still fresh in the minds of the people.

Barrister Munawar Iqbal Duggal, who is also the legal adviser of the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), told Dawn that under the Investigation for Fair Trial Act 2013, intelligence agencies and the police could record the telephone calls of any citizen with the permission of a judge of the high court.

According to him, the law also empowered citizens to seek legal remedies over the recording of his her telephone calls as this is a violation of their fundamental rights and privacy, even a case for defamation. But, he said, the aggrieved citizen could invoke the relevant provisions of the law only after the person or the agency who has recorded the phone calls is identified.

Moreover, if someone uploads the recording of a phone call onto any social media platforms from outside of Pakistan’s territorial jurisdiction, Mr Duggal said law enforcement agencies could not take any punitive action in such cases.

However, he said that under the country’s laws, no intelligence agency could record the telephone calls of any citizen and if any intelligence agency did so “it would be an illegal act”.

Barrister Umar Ijaz Gilani, another lawyer who deals with the cases related to civil liberties, said recording telephone calls was a breach of privacy and it was a tort for which the aggrieved person might seek legal remedy, and even file a suit for damages.

Any incumbent or former holder of public office could also seek a similar remedy from the competent court of law. But, he said, in case the information recorded and subsequently leaked was of a classified nature, the case might be registered under the Official Secrets Act or other relevant provision of the Pakistan Penal Code.

Barrister Gilani was also of the view that unless someone was identified for recording and leaking the audio or telephone call, the aggrieved person could not file a legal suit in the court of law. The aggrieved party may lodge a complaint with police for criminal trespass over breach of privacy right, he added.

Although Pakistan’s political history is replete with leaked audios, with leaps in technology, the practice seems to be becoming more frequent.

It was said that former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was the first prime minister to have ordered the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to tap the phones of his political opponents after protests broke out against his government in the first half of 1977.

He also happened to be the last civilian ruler to exercise direct control over the ISI, as after General Ziaul Haq’s military coup, the role and the capacity of the military’s intelligence agencies increased due to the Soviet invasion on neighbouring Afghanistan. It was at this the time, when the US assisted the country’s security establishment and intelligence agencies to enhance their surveillance capacities.

Apart from military intelligence agencies, which have blanket approval to tap the telephones of suspicious individuals who can become a threat to the national security, the civilian Intelligence Bureau (IB) has also being used by the successive governments to maintain surveillance on their opponents.

The role of IB in politicians’ surveillance came to light in 2015, when PPP Senator Saleem Mandviwala claimed on the floor of the Senate that his phone was being tapped. The matter was referred to the house committee where then-IB Aftab Sultan claimed that his organisation was not tapping the telephones of politicians and parliamentarians, even though it had a blanket permission to tap the phones of suspected terrorists and criminals.

Mr Sultan had told the committee at the time that his agency required prior permission of the prime minister to tap the phones of anyone, including parliamentarians.

Published in Dawn, July 6th, 2022

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