Whistleblowers Australia and Wikileaks
Schoolchildren are taught from a young age that trying to get other students into trouble is unacceptable. The reason is simple – the teacher doesn't know if they are telling the truth, so it's one child's word against another.
But what if one student has a video on their mobile of a bully beating up another kid and taking their money? Surely, the right thing to do is show it to the teacher so the bully can be punished.
If only life were that simple.
The schoolyard thug might find out which of their classmates caught them on video, and decide to get revenge to maintain their playground power. That might discourage others from keeping watch or speaking out in future, and keep the lunch money flowing into the bully’s pocket.
A whistleblower is someone who finds out about corruption, wrongdoing or negligence inside an organisation, and lets out the secret. They are often attacked in a number of ways, which is why many countries have laws designed to protect their identities, and punish those who attack them.
The standard procedure in exposing wrongdoing is giving some evidence to the boss, or calling a confidential hotline like they have in the police, courts, parliament, government departments and some companies. The evidence is investigated and whistleblowers are expected not to tell anyone else about the matter, especially not the media.
People or organisations accused of wrongdoing always have the right to face their accusers and defend themselves – the principle known as 'natural justice' – and genuine whistleblowers have no problem with that.
But when the accused individual or organisation puts its need to limit bad publicity and the embarrassment of senior personnel before justice and the public interest, the whistleblower becomes the enemy.
Bad publicity is unfortunate, but while it may be the primary concern of the accused, it is not the primary aim of the whistleblower to drag anyone's name through the mud.
The stakes can be very high – a whistleblower's evidence can threaten people who may be criminals, people in important positions or whole organisations. If they are likely to embarrass a political party, government department, politician, or a major company, whistleblowers are taking on a very powerful foe indeed.
A whistleblower is often attacked personally – being called a whinger, a troublemaker, a crazy person or a malicious liar. They might also get the cold shoulder from colleagues and superiors, or be attacked in other ways, including physically.
Genuine whistleblowers need protection as they put the public interest above their own, the interests of the organisation and its most powerful members.
Vice-president and international director of Whistleblowers Australia, Professor Brian Martin believes in the importance of free speech. His 1997 book Suppression Stories describes his experience “in over 15 years of research and action against suppression”.
He got involved with Whistleblowers Australia shortly after they were set up in 1991, a group which meets around the country and provides information and advice to individuals, while running campaigns on wider national issues like laws to protect whistleblowers.
“We don't support individuals because we don't have the resources," Professor Martin says. "We basically provide information, support and contacts. We don't actually go out and write letters on their behalf or anything like that, although some of our members do that on their own under their own initiative.
“The wider picture is exercise of power in society. I think we're [all] mostly better off when people are more equal. That means we're able to speak out and freely negotiate things. In most organisations, and certainly in governments, they're very hierarchical and people at the bottom don't have free speech.
“When you go into a workplace you don't have free speech any more. In an organisation you don't even have free speech to criticise the organisation – to raise issues, even internally.”
Professor Martin asks why free speech is so limited within organisations compared with society as a whole.
“People can stand up on a street corner and say lots of things, or these days you can set up a blog and write any comments that you like. Basically, if you say a bunch of tripe, you're going to lose credibility," he points out, referring to one of the basic tenets of libertarian thought.
Perhaps losing one's credibility and reputation should be the only 'punishment' for people who make false accusations. At least when truly unethical and criminal actions are brought to light, it seems natural that whoever is exposed suffers public embarrassment. Too often however, the whistleblower is attacked for going public with their evidence.
“We don't really even know what it's like to imagine an organisation that lets everyone say what they like, and the penalty is your reputation and your credibility, as opposed to other sorts of responses,” Martin says.
Defamation law allows people to protect their reputations in court, however Professor Martin believes this does more harm than good, because winning a defamation case and receiving compensation does little to repair a damaged reputation while on the other hand, defamation laws are often used as a weapon against whistleblowers and journalists due to the cost of mounting a defence.
“The standard legal system, where you have to pay a lawyer a lot of money – like $1000 to write a letter – is geared to serve the lawyers and those who are rich," he says. "It's not really available to others.”
As national secretary of Whistleblowers Australia, Cynthia Kardell knows Professor Martin well and is herself a whistleblower. After she was fired in 1995 from the South Eastern Sydney Area Health Service, a court eventually ruled it was unfair for her to be sacked for 'needlessly embarrassing' her employer.
“I just wanted the employer to fix the problem, as I saw it. But really, if the employer was embarrassed, I thought, well maybe that's as it should be,” she said on ABC Radio in 2008.
She agrees with Martin that free speech and open debate are healthier than secrecy and what public relations experts call 'damage control', and advises whistleblowers to make their evidence public for their own sake.
“Public exposure is always a better tool, every which-way," Kardell says.
"Whistleblowers are always asked to keep their mouth shut after they've made the initial disclosure. That's the worst thing they can do for themselves. It's best for the whistleblower if they make the information public, and then keep talking about it publicly the whole way through the process."
Special laws protect government whistleblowers from harassment and victimisation, but in most states they only apply if the whistleblower keeps quiet, and allows the matter to be investigated internally. In NSW they can go public if nothing has been done after six months.
Ms Kardell is now a lawyer, and believes that the law should protect whistleblowers who go public immediately.
“It is a healthy response to a problem and it goes towards accountability, transparency in public life, and it serves the public interest," she says.
She adds that internal investigations put an enormous pressure on whistleblowers because it is just their word against the organisation's, and any staff accused of wrongdoing.
“A lot of people can't handle the pressure whistleblowing puts them under. They break down and can't go the full distance. That's why the best way is public exposure,” Ms Kardell advises.
When the alternative is keeping quiet and trusting an organisation to investigate internally, perhaps it is also the only way.
FAST FACTS -- "Wikileaks": http://wikileaks.org
Wikileaks is a website that publishes leaked documents from anonymous whistleblowers. It is hosted by PRQ, a Swedish company that keeps very little information on its clients' data. The documents are assessed by a team of five editors led by Julian Assange, an Australian computer expert who believes that the website is the future of journalism. He promotes free speech, ethics, transparency and public accountability and the protection of whistleblowers, just like Whistleblowers Australia.
* Set up in 2007 by journalists, mathematicians, technologists and Chinese dissidents from the United States, Taiwan, Europe, Australia and South Africa.
* Has released more classified documents than the whole world's press combined.
* Australian spokesperson, Julian Assange, is one of its founders and editors.
* Protected by cryptographic technology which means sources are untraceable by outsiders.
* Original primary aim was to expose oppressive regimes in Asia, the former Soviet bloc, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East.
* Includes documents from the CIA, United States government and Microsoft.
* Released a video this year of U.S. soldiers killing civilians in Iraq.