The war on whistleblowers

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Don’t shoot the messenger!

Whistleblowing is increasing. But so is the war against whistleblowers. Where will it end? asks Vanessa Baird.


© Ben Jennings/Cartoon Movement

Is this the age of the whistleblower?

It seems so, from the media interest in Edward Snowden.

Campaigners say that Snowdon (the 29-year-old former systems analyst at the US National Security Agency (NSA)) is almost the perfect whistleblower.

On video, Snowdon is thoughtful, and an average guy, intelligent but with no special political problem to fight against. But he thinks we should know that the secret services are listening to and keeping every phone call we make or internet message we send and that we have no privacy. And he thinks we should say if we are happy with that or not.

He is modest and ordinary, but he has talked about very important information. He passed so much information to the media – about 1.7 million files. This is even more than Chelsea Manning, who passed on 251,287 diplomatic cables.

Since Wikileaks started, whistleblowing has become a large ‘industrialized’ activity.

But for most whistleblowers, it is lonely and isolating. It’s not like being on a production line with your friends.

But these are the most famous. Edward Snowden and Julian Assange (founder of Wikileaks) are very well-known but they have to keep running away. Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning will be in a military jail for 35 years.

The Obama administration talks about free speech, but it has started more prosecutions against whistleblowers than all other presidents together since 1917.

‘War against whistleblowers is a fashion,’ says Jesslyn Radack (Snowden’s lawyer and a former US Justice Department whistleblower).

And not just in the US. Japan’s government now has the power to punish people who give away information about their nuclear industry, after the Fukushima disaster.

Dangerous work

Most secrets are revealed by whistleblowers – not government regulators or police investigators or even journalists. A person inside the organisation who tells the truth about the bad things she or he sees.

After the scandal, the whistleblower is a hero. The public admire them and are grateful that people are brave enough to speak the truth.

People thank them, but don’t protect them.

In 2010, millions of Chinese parents were horrified to find that their children were drinking milk that was mixed with toxic chemicals at fresh milk collection points. Two years later, one of the two men who talked about this publicly, farmer Jiang Weisuo, was murdered. Noone ever explained why.

More recently was Lawrence Moepi, a brave South African auditor. Last October, he arrived at his Johannesburg office, and was shot and killed by, it is believed, hired assassins. He had been investigating several suspected corruption cases, including an arms deal.

The organisation can take revenge, or silence the whistleblower – they can be violent and direct – or the opposite.

Craig Murray was a former British ambassador. He talked about the British and US secret services supporting torture in Uzbekistan. So they accused him of asking for sex in exchange for visas. It took 18 months to prove he was innocent.

Janice Karpinsky, the most senior woman in the US army, said that Donald Rumsfeld ordered the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. He was arrested and accused of shoplifting the next day.

Murray said: ‘There are not many whistle¬blowers because it is so difficult and everyone else is too scared to help. And if your whistleblowing is about war and spying, they will try to accuse you of a false crime .... they will destroy you.’

The public is normally on the side of whistleblowers. But governments, institutions and employers are not. When very damaging information is revealed, the people in power will do everything they can to turn the whistleblower into the enemy.

This has worked on many people in the US. They are very angry with Manning and Snowden because they think they have risked the security of all Americans. But the politicians and secret service cannot say how this has risked security. They say general things about ‘agents in the field’ and that ‘terrorists will now change their plans’.

These are the important, international cases. But most whistleblowing is at a simple, local level. Sometimes the information gets to the local press or comes out at an employment tribunal after the whistleblower has lost their job or been given a lower job. Often the media are afraid to investigate the information whistleblowers bring them, because they think there is a risk of libel, which would be very expensive or because the story is too complicated.

Legal protection

‘Organisations need to make arrangements for whistleblowing,’ says the British organization Public Concern At Work(PCaW). ‘A healthy and open culture will encourage people to speak out. They should be confident that they can speak out with no problems, confident that people will listen to them and take action.’

But this is not what we have. It is usually the person who talks about the problems, not the person who did wrong, who is punished and who loses most. They usually lose their job and career, and often also their relationship, their home, even their liberty.

More countries now have laws to protect whistleblowers from organisations taking action against them. But most laws are very limited. For example, in Canada and Australia, the law does not protect people in private companies; and New Zealand’s law is limited to government agencies.

Canada is possibly the worst English-speaking country for whistleblowers. Britain is one of the few European countries with a law for both private and public areas of work. But in practice it is not so good for British whistleblowers because of the libel laws that support the rich. There is some US law, which makes it very bad for people who speak out in some areas, but gives large financial rewards to people who uncover secret fraud against the government.

Whistleblowers often need money if they lose their jobs. But giving huge amounts of money is controversial. Cathy James of the British PCaW does not agree with the US-style system. She thinks: ‘Whistleblowing should be seen as very positive. We should encourage everyone to protect the public interest. I don’t want to live in a society where people do the right things because they think they are going to get something for it.’

If people make confidential information public, they might break the law; especially if they have taken documents without permission or broken official secrecy arrangements. This causes strange things, eg. the banker Bradley Birkenfeld. He revealed the $780 million tax fraud at UBS, and was sent to a Swiss prison for breaking confidentiality.

Under British law, whistleblowers who break the law to reveal wrong can say, to defend themselves, that they were acting in the ‘public interest’. This does not often happen in other countries.

People use a lot of energy fighting for laws to protect people who speak out. Many whistleblower organizations believe this is the best thing to do.

Brian Martin is a campaigner with Whistleblowers Australia. He has talked with hundreds of whistleblowers and written a very good guide on whistleblowing. And he thinks that it is wrong to focus mainly on legal protection.

‘It does not work very often and can even make more problems for whistleblowers; they think they are protected but aren’t.’

So he now encourages people who are thinking of revealing secret information to develop their skills and understanding so that they can be more effective in changing things. The best thing, he says, is to take messages to as many people as possible, through mass media, social media or direct communication.

‘I now tell people that “leaking” – whistleblowing without giving your name – is best whenever possible.’

This may not be easy for most whistleblowers, who are responsible employees and who believe the system works. They will try the official way first and do not want to contact the media or action groups.

But, Martin says, whistleblowers are ‘usually not effective in challenging the problems they try to reveal'. This sounds pessimistic. Whistleblowers are courageous but they need a lot of help to be more effective. Probably the best plan is to link a network of people who reveal information and well-connected action groups.’

Smári McCarthy is another activist who is moving away from fighting for legal protection. For three years he, and others in Iceland, worked to create a good legal environment for leakers, whistleblowers and journalists. They were making good progress until April 2013 when a rightwing coalition government came to power and stopped the changes.

Now he thinks technology is more important. There are two laws, he says, that governments have to obey: ‘physics and economics’. He plans to use physics to make mass surveillance – where intelligence services collect everybody’s private internet and phone communication – too expensive to do.

He knows that the money the ‘Five Eyes’ (the communications surveillance services of the US, Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand together) have is $120 billion a year. With that money, they can get the data of 2.5 billion internet users. So the cost per person per day is only 13 cents.

‘My five-year plan is to increase that cost to $10,000 per person per day. The services would have to be a lot more selective and do their job properly.’

How to do it? Encryption – the types that hackers have developed and which the NSA has still, as far as we know, not managed to understand. ‘I use encryption a lot,’ says McCarthy. ‘But we need to make it easier to use and available to everyone.’ This will help people who reveal secret information too, he says, because if everybody’s privacy is improved then so is the privacy of whistleblowers. What they say must be accurate, and it needs to pass the ‘public interest’ test and not violate personal privacy.

Snowden and others have shown how much free speech and civil liberties are being violated by the state. And not only in countries like Russia or China.

More and more information is “top secret” and we have no way of talking about if it should be top secret. The Guardian newspaper recently destroyed a lot of laptops – this should be a warning. Democracy dies behind closed doors – and now in smashed laptops in newspaper offices too.

All people who seriously want to reveal information that the public need to know need protection: whistleblowers, sources, campaigners, journalists and publishers. In 2011, under a social-democrat government, Iceland followed Council of Europe recommendations and made it illegal for journalists to expose their sources. In Britain a journalist can be put in prison for not exposing their source. It is even worse in the US: Barrett Brown, a young freelancer, is facing 105 years in prison for posting information that hackers got from Statfor, (a private intelligence company linked to the federal government).

A better world

Basically, whistleblowing is about wanting people to know the truth, wanting things to be done properly, and for the world to be a better place.

A place where big business does not cheat or harm citizens for profit; where hospitals and care homes look after elderly people and banks do not steal from their customers. Where politicians work as a public service, not to help themselves; where priests respect the children they are looking after and the military do not shoot people just because they want to.


Some experts now think that whistleblowing without giving your name is the best option. This protester, with a painted ‘Anonymous’ mask, is at a rally in Portland, US, in support of whistleblowers. (Alex Milan Tracey/NurPhoto/Corbis)

Sometimes whistleblowing gives good results and the information improves or even saves lives. In 1994, US paralegal Merrell Williams revealed internal information from Brown & Williamson Tobacco company. This showed that the company knew it was lying when it said that cigarettes were not harmful, that nicotine was not addictive and that it did not encourage children to buy the cigarettes.

Because of his action, the tobacco industry had to pay billions of dollars of smokers’ medical bills.

Whistleblowers are guardians of morality, but too often they suffer alone for this. Wikileaks said at the end of last year, that the world is facing a very big threat to democracy. And the threat is from fundamentalists in suits not from religious fanatics in turbans.

There are important trade agreements being made by the TPP and TTIP (TransPacific Partnership and Translatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership). These are US-led international trade agreements – in secrecy – that will give corporations more power than nations and the interests of billions of people. Two secret drafts of the TransPacific Partnership (TPP), from Wikileaks, on intellectual property and the environment show the deals would stop individual rights and free expression and give powerful companies the right to challenge the domestic laws that control, for example, resource extraction in Peru or Australia. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) – between the US and the EU – would be similar. It would make it easier for big private corporations to control the national public services (eg. health and education). People who are trying to save Britain’s national health service from private US medical companies know how bad this could be.

These trade agreements are at a high level, made by corporations, governments controlled by the corporations and secret services that we now know (again, thanks to Snowden) really do use public money to spy for big business.

The only thing that can fight against this is a growing network from below: whistleblowers, civil society activists and hactivists, journalists and citizens who care.

We only have democracy if we have access to information – and today the most relevant information often comes from whistleblowers.

Democracy is only real if we can participate. This is why we need to use the information to take action. If not democracy will become totalitarianism: corrupt institutions or a world order controlled by global, corporate élite.

The whistleblowers take very big risks. We must make this mean something.

Could you be a good whistleblower? Find out here: quiz


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed).