Security agencies will now have the right to tap telephones, read emails or read text messages using technology that allows them to reach right in to the personal lives of people. The idea of a ‘Big Brother’ Orwellian State, peering constantly over the shoulder and into the inbox is a terrifying one. Even though the Constitution grants some protection of privacy (in Article 14), albeit in a slightly hazy fashion as far as access to electronic communication is concerned, phones have been tapped before by agencies — and recorded conversations used for political victimisation. There is now a real risk that such abuse will increase, with The Fair Trial Bill 2012 unanimously passed in the National Assembly on December 20.
The bill, already meeting with criticism from many quarters, gives unprecedented powers to the security agencies to keep a watch on citizens. Evidence collected through the surveillance of emails, SMS, phone conversations, etc will be admissible in court. The government has argued the new law will help fight terrorism but has not answered questions about how personal rights are to be protected or security agencies prevented from misusing the new law. The possibility that it could be used to track down and punish dissent, unrelated to terrorism, is very real. The bill, too, is misleadingly named. In reality, it has very little to do with fair trial and more to do with a dangerous licence to gain access to the lives of people. No safeguards have been built in to prevent this and restrictions to ‘terrorism’ poorly defined. Opposition proposals that the bill be placed under the umbrella of the Anti-Terrorism Act, to limit its scope, were rejected.
We have a long history of abusive behaviour by agencies. Giving these bodies sweeping new powers in such a situation is dangerous. The threat of blackmail, misuse of personal information and further encroachment into the personal space of citizens is too real. Fighting terrorism must not be used as an excuse to tread into this area. The proposed law is a bad one and has no place in a society that claims to be democratic.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 22nd, 2012.