The Politics of Implausible Deniability

cc Farzana Ahmad Awan, modified,

In Pakistan, differentiating between right and wrong has become enigmatic. It is permeated at all levels of society – from the lower-middle class to the elite. This problem is further exacerbated by the prevalence of implausible deniability, which is also known as pantomime secrecy in political circles. This practice often occurs within our political system, where state actors may carry out actions that are not publicly acknowledged but are known to the public, creating a translucently clear veil of secrecy and uncertainty. While this practice may have some benefits for institutions, such as adding communicative value, injecting uncertainty into domestic or foreign relations, creating fear among the public domestically, or steering election results, it also could bring unintended consequences. It often leads to a ‘paranoid style’ of politics in Pakistan, where people are increasingly suspicious and mistrustful of their leaders, institutions, and the political system as a whole.

In today’s world, where civil society has become globalized, investigative journalists, human rights lawyers, and whistleblowers can communicate and collaborate more easily than ever before. This has led to an increase in challenges against state secrecy and implausible deniability. However, despite claims about the ‘end of secrecy,’ governments are fighting back against journalists and whistleblowers, making it more difficult for them to uncover the truth. The changes in the media environment have important implications for understanding the actions of institutions. It is not simply a matter of reducing secrecy, but rather a spectrum of visibility and acknowledgement.

Institutions often employ unofficial narratives to convey knowledge without officially acknowledging it. Such narratives are aided by implausible deniability and are useful for domestic audiences. Leaks and planted stories are common tactics incorporated to transfer sensitive information without the risk of official acknowledgement. Recent activities in the political and judicial spectrum have revealed the existence of a classified fear program that is controlled by unnamed officials. However, overt acknowledgement of such actions could invite condemnation, escalation, and retaliation by the domestic and international community. Therefore, ambiguity and implausible deniability are employed to create space for myths to emerge and allow fear to take hold. This approach also enables institutions to build powerful narratives that can shape public opinion. By creating space for myths to emerge, institutions can manipulate public perception and control the narrative. This tactic is also incorporated to spread fear and anxiety, which can have negative consequences for society as a whole.

To conclude, institutions tend to embrace and promote the concept of “implausible deniability.” This is a strategy that allows them to deny any involvement or knowledge of controversial or illegal actions, even when evidence suggests otherwise. The idea behind implausible deniability is that it offers a logical and politically advantageous defence to the institution, as it can distance itself from any wrongdoing while still reaping the benefits of such actions.

This quandary poses a significant challenge in both analytical and practical domains. It creates ambiguity around accountability, making it difficult to assign responsibility for actions taken or decisions made. Additionally, it can obscure the identity of actors involved in a particular situation, further complicating efforts to determine responsibility. This lack of clarity can have serious constitutional implications, as it can undermine the principles of transparency, fairness, and due process that are essential to any legal or political system. And, potentially, damaging the institution’s reputation and eroding public trust.


Kajal Manshad is a PhD candidate for Politics and IR at Keele University. She has MA in Asian and International Studies, and BA (Hons) Politics and IR.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author(s) alone and do not necessarily reflect those of

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