THE BILL that would allow the police to carry out phone surveillance of suspects, after approval has been secured from a judge, has once again been put on hold by deputies. The chairman of the House legal affairs committee Giorgos Georgiou said on Thursday deputies decided the bill needed more work, ruling out the possibility of it being approved at Friday’s plenum, the last before the legislature breaks for the European Parliament elections.
If this were a one-off it would have been understandable, but the political parties have been blocking bills that would allow wire-tapping, for specific cases, since the Clerides presidency, on the grounds that it was a violation of an individual’s privacy. It is, which is why any applications for phone surveillance would have to be approved by a judge, that would base the decision on whether the request was justified.
This is a hypocritical stance, because there are strong suspicions state authorities engage in telephone surveillance, if they suspect there is a threat to national security or some hostile diplomatic move was being planned. Some unaccountable, top official gives the order and the wire tap is put in place, but none of the parties (most of which are aware of this practice because they have been part of a government) seem remotely concerned about this exercise of illegal, arbitrary power.
The only snag, under the current regime, is that these recordings cannot be used in court because they are illegal, but this does not bother the parties, because they view telephone surveillance justified only in cases of perceived threats to national security, that never reach the courts. Listening to telephone conversations – with a court order – of suspected murderers, drug traffickers, racketeers in order to avert crime or to make prosecution possible is considered a violation of human rights by our wise deputies. The parties feel obliged to protect the right to privacy of suspected criminals.
Countless developed democracies allow telephone surveillance, sanctioned by the courts. Are they less democratic than Cyprus or are their legislators less sensitive about human right than Cypriot deputies? No, they are just pragmatic enough not to take the right to privacy to irrational extremes, thus curtailing the police’s power to fight crime and enforce the law. Their concern should be to prevent possible abuses by the police, but this is addressed by the bill, which makes telephone surveillance subject to court approval.
There is no rational justification for opposing the bill that would also allow the use of telephone conversations as evidence in court. Perhaps the parties do not want telephone surveillance to be regulated by law and would rather it was exercised arbitrarily by the authorities.