Friday December 08, 2023

The PM’s presser

By Editorial Board
September 28, 2022

That the walls have ears was hardly a secret in Pakistan’s corridors of power. That has become glaringly obvious now with the recent ‘audio leaks’ featuring the PM’s Office. In a press conference yesterday, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif clarified the confusion regarding the leaks and admitted that they are indeed critical and an extremely serious security lapse. There has been no denial by government representatives regarding the audio recordings and now the prime minister has also spoken out about the content of the clips. One thing is certain: somehow conversations in the PMO managed to get recorded. Whether this was through outside phones brought into the PMO or through bugs, the highest office in the democratic setup seems to alarmingly be vulnerable to such a security lapse. PM Shehbaz is right in saying that Pakistan’s standing in the international community is on the line as no one would feel free to speak with the prime minister out of privacy concerns. To have such audio files of the highest office in the country ‘leaked’ on the internet must – should – be of grave concern to all security officials. The prime minister has announced that a high-level committee will be constituted to investigate the matter.

There have been many audios and even some video leaks in the recent past of high government officials and others related to government matters. While one side may use the other side’s audio calls to settle political scores, such leaks do not bode well for the national security of Pakistan. The political class has for many decades been saying that nothing they say is a secret as somewhere it is being ‘heard’. If indeed these audios were being recorded somewhere sensitive, it needs to be probed if they were ‘hacked’ or ‘leaked’. If these audios are a result of people bringing in compromised phones into the PM’s Office, then security must indeed be tightened at all levels of government. All these scenarios and possibilities have different connotations but it is important that they all be probed and heads must roll whatever the investigations reveal. If they were ‘hacked’, then it means that the country’s cyber security is also under question. If the audio files were deliberately ‘leaked’ to embarrass the government, then it means that some sort of politics is at play and it is equally, if not more, dangerous that such sensitive conversations – even if they did not violate any law – can be brought into the public domain for vested interests.

While it is unclear what kind of surveillance has ended up in this audio data being released, it is also a matter of record that unfortunately over the years there has been an apathetic attitude among successive governments every time civil society and rights activists have talked about privacy concerns and raised the issue of surveillance. When Imran Khan was prime minister, he had even claimed that surveillance was for the ‘protection’ and security of government officials and public office-holders. Surveillance has been used as a method of espionage by foreign powers, and by political rivals and the security apparatus. Either way, it serves little purpose other than ‘blackmail’ or to keep an upper hand over citizens and is a culture that must stop now. Whether the ‘ordinary citizen’ or the highest official of the land, everyone must feel safe in the privacy of their homes or their workplaces that what they say remains confined to the ears of those they are speaking to, and is not being recorded somewhere behind the shadows.