Pakistan has been mired in an audio leak controversy for the past weeks after a series of audio clips — allegedly involving Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, politician Maryam Nawaz and ousted PM Imran Khan — were released online.
The controversy, termed alternately as the ‘cypher inquiry’ and ‘Cablegate’, has set off discussions on the integrity of the country’s highest office, questions on the source of the leaks and heated up the political atmosphere in Islamabad, with the country’s Cabinet ordering a high-level probe into the revelations made in the audio clips involving Imran.
How it began
On September 24, several audio clips, allegedly recorded in the Prime Minister’s Office in Islamabad, were leaked online. The conversations were purportedly between PM Sharif and other senior officials.
The recordings look to have been made during informal conversations in the PM’s Office and involved discussions on importing industrial machinery from India for a project involving Maryam Nawaz’s son-in-law, to which the PM said that such a move could leave him vulnerable to criticism from his political rivals.
Also mentioned in the tapes are chats regarding the performance of then-Finance Minister Miftah Ismail, and the return of exiled former President Pervez Musharraf, reported Pakistan-based media house Dawn.
The leaks were initially blamed on a cyber attack, with former information minister and Imran-ally Fawad Chaudhry claiming that over 100 hours of conversation recorded from PMO’s office were available for sale online for $345,000.
However, some others have blamed the country’s military for the leaks.
Former lawmaker Bushra Gohar told German news agency Deutsche Welle that intelligence agencies often secretly record politicians to blackmail them. “It is a serious matter that even the PM’s office isn’t safe for any kind of security meeting. The audio contents are being discussed in public but no one is questioning the illegality of these recordings,” she added.
The second batch
Days after the tapes featuring the sitting PM were leaked, another one came out featuring a controversial conversation, purportedly between Imran Khan and his former principal secretary, Azam Khan. This tape had much more serious implications as it referred to a cypher that Khan had often referenced while alleging that his unceremonious ouster from the PM post was facilitated by a ‘foreign conspiracy’.
In the first of the leaked clips, the voice that allegedly belongs to Imran is heard saying: “We only have to play on this. We don’t have to name [any country]. We only have to play with this, that this date was [decided] before,” reported Dawn.
Khan was removed from the top post in April after a failed no-confidence motion. He has blamed the United States for his expulsion, a charge which Washington has strongly denied.
PM Sharif and his party have long maintained that Khan had cooked up the ‘foreign interference’ line to stir up anti-American sentiments and evade responsibility for the issues that cropped up during his tenure as the PM.
Though the sitting government tried to play down the matter initially, it has picked up steam, forcing the government to order an inquiry.
In the immediate aftermath of the initial leaks, Pakistan Information Minister Marriyum Aurangzeb had sought to dismiss the matter, saying that the leaked conversations were not sensitive.
However, after Imran’s audio clips surfaced, PM Sharif announced an inquiry into the matter. “This is a big question mark. Who will now come to Pakistan to meet the PM in the PM House? Be it a friend or a sympathiser, they will think twice about if they should mention anything sensitive or not. They will think 100 times, wondering if these conversations will be recorded,” he said, as per a report in Al Jazeera.
Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) leader Hammad Azhar has called for the release of the cypher, alleging that Imran’s PTI government was removed following “the exact same script as was given in the cypher.”
The Sharif government, meanwhile, has said that the cypher has gone missing from the Prime Minister’s House records, terming the “theft” an “unforgivable crime” and a violation of the Official Secrets Act.
Meanwhile, the Pakistan Cabinet has announced a high-level inquiry into the audio leaks and the missing cypher, and that appropriate legal action is taken against all those involved. A debugging operation was conducted at the PMO as well.