The state has a responsibility to protect the basic right to privacy of its citizens
Type the word “phonalap” (phone conversation, if translated into English) in the search bar of YouTube and you will be dumbfounded by the results as majority of the content have hardly anything to do with national security, a clause that allows intelligence agencies and law enforcement agencies to “eavesdrop on telephones,” which is otherwise a punishable offense under the Telecommunications Regulations Act, 2001 (amended in 2010).
At a time when citizens’ right to privacy, a fundamental right guaranteed by the constitution, is barely in effect, the High Court’s recent order dismissing a writ petition seeking an immediate probe into leaked phone conversations is worrying indeed.
A group of 10 Supreme Court lawyers had filed the petition where some much-talked-about leaked conversations were mentioned. Few other conversations having little or not too direct political essence have also been mentioned among the 20 phone conversations leaked since 2013.
On September 13, a High Court bench, upon hearing the petition, commented:
“One of the two parties talking over the phone or a third party may leak the conversation. We do not know what agenda lies behind but phone tapping and then blatantly sharing those conversations via media is not the right thing to do.
“A person’s privacy is breached when phone conversations are published by the media. That person falls into an embarrassing situation in the society,” the bench had said, as per a report published by Bangla daily Ittefaq.
It is unfortunate that although such remarks came initially, the writ petition was ultimately dismissed on grounds that none of the petitioners were direct victims of phone tapping and that any person facing difficulties or embarrassment due to such practices can or should file a case individually under the Telecommunications Regulations Act.
It shows that the authorities are reluctant to take any responsibility or action to stop the trend of recording and publishing phone conversations. A private conversation of an actress, an intellectual conversation over the present situation of the country between two friends, or an intimate conversation between a man and a woman — how can these be deemed anti-state or instigating? Through which lens and who decides? How beneficial are they for nabbing a terrorist or for foiling a bomb attack?
Not only phones are being tapped, but also, many television channels and news portals are airing those recordings in order to stay ahead in some sort of competition, to gain higher TRP, likes, and shares. Leaked conversations pop-up on social media every now and then and the party facing the flak usually comes up with the claim that their words have been edited/distorted or that the whole audio clip is a fabricated one.
It is true that in today’s world, terrorism is an ever-growing global menace and phone tapping is an essential method of prevention and investigation by relevant authorities. But seeing the nature of the leaked phone conversations that made the headlines, any conscious citizen is likely to question the motive behind them.
What happens if the intelligence agencies or law enforcement agencies misuse their equipment and manpower that have been allotted solely for intercepting criminal activities? It was expected that instead of dismissing the writ petition, the HC would come up with directives addressing such issues and show more concern regarding the state’s responsibility to protect the basic right to privacy of its citizens.
Also, distorted/edited recordings can be an ominous tool for spreading rumours, an issue the government is so concerned about that it is sticking to the controversial Digital Security Act despite vehement opposition from various quarters.
But when the post and telecommunications department, the information and communications department, and the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) could be made responsible for taking a closer look into the malpractice, the High Court simply repositioned the light on the existing law, which is clearly not playing a good enough role in protecting the people.
In May, when Prothom Alo senior reporter Rozina Islam was assaulted and put behind bars triggering a backlash, a conversation between one of her colleagues and the father of that colleague was leaked and the recording started making the rounds on social media. That conversation did contain criticisms of Rozina but one must keep in mind that it was a private conversation between a father and a daughter.
So, the question is, who leaks these conversations? In most cases, it seems that the tapes are leaked to shift the public focus from one issue to another, or to defame a person, or to defame someone facing a trial but has not been found guilty yet.
Such instances indicate that phones are tapped and conversations are edited and leaked deliberately to serve the personal or political agenda of different people and groups. In such an unsafe environment, we are no longer able to drop our shoulders and say whatever we want to to our loved ones after a long hard day.
While talking over the phone, we bite our tongue after uttering something about the political situation of the country. We fear that we might get into trouble in case a third party is all ears. We hesitate to express ourselves, even to those really close to us.
We fear that anything that we utter — be it a slang or our views on an ongoing trial, a religion, a feminist writer, or a cinema — will be deemed anti-state and one fine morning will find their way into the social media in forms of sensational leaked audio clips. The government must understand that citizens are not confident enough to knock on the doors of the court when their fundamental right to privacy is violated.
It is harassment if an ordinary citizen needs to start a legal battle (which are usually never-ending and moreover, the court has a backlog of cases) whenever his or her private conversations are leaked
Source: Dhaka Tribune