Why Whistleblowers? – (I)

BY VANESSA BAIRD

Is this the age of the whistleblower?

It would seem so, from the column inches, air time and cyberspace given to Edward Snowden.

According to campaigners, the 29-year-old former systems analyst at the US National Security Agency (NSA) is close to being the perfect whistleblower.
A quick look at the video clip interview with Laura Poitras shows why. Measured, thoughtful, Snowden comes across as your average guy, intelligent but with no political axe to grind. He just thinks we should know that the secret services are capturing and storing every phone call we make or internet message we send and that our privacy is being violated wholesale. And he thinks we should at least debate whether we are happy with that or not.

What is a Whistleblower?

The term is used loosely to describe any person who has and reports insider knowledge of misconduct or illegal activity occurring within an organization.

A distinction is sometimes made between a ‘source’ – who is anonymous – and a ‘whistleblower’ who is identified. So, Chelsea Manning began as a ‘source’, posting anonymously on Wikileaks, but became a ‘whistleblower’ once outed by hacker Adrian Lamo.

And Julian Assange is not strictly speaking a whistleblower at all, but a publisher who provides a media platform for whistleblowers.

His modest demeanour, his very ordinariness, is in sharp contrast to the scale and impact of his revelations. The sheer amount of data he was able to pass on to select media – some 1.7 million files – beats Chelsea Manning’s impressive 251,287 diplomatic cables into a hat.

Since the advent of Wikileaks, whistleblowing has gone from being a ‘cottage’ to an ‘industrialized’ activity, to use the analogy suggested by Icelandic information activist Smári McCarthy.

Yet for most who do it, making disclosures about wrongdoing is a lonely, limiting and isolating affair. It’s not like being on a production line with your mates.

Paradoxically, this also applies to the most celebrated. Edward Snowden and Wikileaks founder Julian Assange may have achieved rock-star status but they are fugitives, effectively exiled. Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning is serving 35 years in a military jail.

The Obama administration, for all its rhetoric of free speech, has started more prosecutions against whistleblowers than all presidents combined since 1917.
‘War against whistleblowers is a toxic trend,’ says Jesslyn Radack, Snowden’s lawyer and a former US Justice Department whistleblower herself.
And not just in the US. Japan recently approved sweeping government powers to punish those who would expose awkward truths about the country’s nuclear industry, following the Fukushima disaster.

A Dangerous Vocation

At the source of most exposures of wrongdoing is not a government regulator or police investigator or even an investigative journalist, but a whistleblower. A moral insider who breaks ranks to tell the truth about the malpractice she or he sees.

Once the scandal has broken, such people will be hailed as heroes, admired for their integrity by a public grateful that such courageous and outspoken people exist.

But gratitude offers no protection.

In 2010, millions of Chinese parents were horrified to find that their children were drinking milk that had become mixed with toxic chemicals at fresh milk collection points. Two years later, one of the two men who exposed the practice, farmer Jiang Weisuo, was murdered in circumstances that have never been explained.

More recent is the case of Lawrence Moepi, a fearless and principled South African auditor, dubbed the ‘fraudsters’ worst nightmare’. Last October, as he arrived at his Johannesburg office, he was shot and killed by, it is believed, hired assassins. He had been investigating several suspected corruption cases, including a notorious arms deal.

Silencing or exacting retribution can take many forms, violent and direct – or more devious.

Craig Murray, a former British ambassador who exposed how the British and US secret services were supporting torture in Uzbekistan, was subsequently accused of asking for sex in exchange for visas. It took him 18 months to clear his name.

-to be concluded

-by arrangement with the New Internationalist magazine