BY VANESSA BAIRD
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.
Janice Karpinsky, the most senior woman in the US army, was arrested and accused of shoplifting the day after revealing that Donald Rumsfeld ordered the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib.
Murray comments: ‘Whistleblowers are rare because it is a near suicidal vocation and everyone else is too scared to help. And if your whistleblowing involves the world of war and spying, they will try to set you up on false charges… and not just sack you but destroy you.’5
While public opinion is generally on the side of whistleblowers, governments, institutions and employers are not. When it comes to the really embarrassing and damaging disclosures, those in power will do all they can to turn the revealer into the enemy.
This has worked on a significant minority of the US public, furious with Manning and Snowden for allegedly putting at risk the security of all Americans. When pressed to say exactly how, the political and secret service players have failed to come up with one concrete example, resorting to vague comments about ‘agents in the field’ and the fact that ‘terrorists will now change their tactics’.
These are high-profile, international cases. But most whistleblowing happens at a far more modest, local level. Sometimes the revelations will reach the local press or emerge during an employment tribunal after the discloser has been dismissed or demoted. Often media outlets are afraid to investigate the information whistleblowers bring them, because they cannot take the risk of a costly libel or defamation suit, or because the story is too complicated or time-consuming to corroborate.
‘Effective whistleblowing arrangements are a key part of good governance,’ says Public Concern at Work (PCaW), a British organization: ‘A healthy and open culture is one where people are encouraged to speak out, confident that they can do so without adverse repercussions, confident that they will be listened to, and confident that appropriate action will be taken.’
If only. In the topsy-turvy world of whistleblowing it tends to be the person revealing wrongdoing, rather than the wrongdoer, who is punished and who ends up losing most – typically their job and career, but often also their relationship, their home, even their liberty.
The complex dynamics at play when someone discloses unwelcome information are explored by psychoanalyst David Morgan in his article I Had to Do It. Far from being rebels and outsiders, most disclosers are diligent, conscientious, somewhat obsessive insiders, who think their employers will be grateful for the information given and will naturally want to do the right thing.
An increasing number of countries have laws on their statute books – with more in the pipeline – specifically to protect whistleblowers from retaliation, harassment or victimization. But most laws are severely limited in their scope and effectiveness. For example, in Canada and Australia, the law does not apply to people working in the private sector, while New Zealand’s law is limited to government agencies.
Did You Know
a survey of 1,000 whistleblowers found that after raising a concern
19 per cent faced formal action (disciplinary or demotion), 15 per cent were dismissed and 74 per cent said nothing was done about the wrongdoing
150 estimated number of whistleblowers harassed or jailed in past 5 years.
20 estimated number killed
15 per cent of those who report Chinese government corruption are unhappy mistresses of government officials
The biggest ever reward to a whistleblower was $14million paid out by the US Securities and Exchange Commission to an individual who helped recover substantial investor funds
In Canada, a fierce libel regime contributes to creating possibly the most hostile environment in the English-speaking world. Britain is one of the few European countries with a law that applies across both private and public sectors, but in practice British whistleblowers do not fare too well either and libel laws that favour the rich have a chilling effect.8 US law is patchy and contradictory, extremely hostile to those who speak out in some areas, but enabling large financial rewards for those who disclose fraud against the government.9
While whistleblowers may need to be compensated for loss of earnings, the awarding of massive cash settlements is controversial. Cathy James of the British PCaW sees ‘moral hazard’ in a US-style system. In her view: ‘Whistleblowing should be seen as a very positive issue, everyone should be encouraged 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 benefit.’
Going public on confidential information may put disclosers on the wrong side of the law, especially if they have smuggled out documents or broken official secrecy arrangements. This has led to absurd examples, like that of the banker Bradley Birkenfeld who exposed $780 million tax fraud at UBS, receiving a Swiss prison sentence for breaking confidentiality.
Under British law, disclosers who break the law to reveal wrongdoing can claim, in their defence, that they were acting in the ‘public interest’. This is not widely available elsewhere (see the case of Chelsea Manning in Dead Bastards).
‘I Now Recommend Leaking’
Considerable energy goes into lobbying for laws and practices to protect properly those who speak out and many whistleblower organizations believe this is the way forward.
Brian Martin is a veteran campaigner with Whistleblowers Australia who has talked with hundreds of disclosers and written a highly regarded practical guide on the topic.
And he has come to the conclusion that the intense focus on legal protection is misguided.
‘It seldom works and can even make whistleblowers more vulnerable; they think they are protected but aren’t.’
Instead, he now encourages potential disclosers to develop their skills and understanding so that they can be more effective in bringing about change. The most effective strategies, he says, involve taking messages to a wider audience, through mass media, social media or direct communication.
‘I now recommend leaking – anonymous whistleblowing – whenever possible.’
This may not come naturally to most disclosers, who are conscientious employees who believe the system works. They will try official channels first and are reluctant to contact the media or action groups.
But, Martin points out, whistleblowers are ‘hardly ever effective in challenging the problems they attempt to expose. This sounds pessimistic. Whistleblowers are courageous but they need a lot of help to be more effective. Probably the best scenario is a link-up between a network of leakers and well-connected action groups.’
-to be concluded
-by arrangement with the New Internationalist magazine