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Whistleblowers: why do we dislike them?

Tanya Jain 18th November 2020

Whistleblowers reveal information at grave danger to themselves. (Source: ACCAGlobal)

In the wake of the alleged punishment of one of the whistle-blowers on the spread of Covid-19 in China during its early existence, the debate surrounding whistle-blowers has grown exponentially.

Li Wenliang, one of the doctors in Wuhan who had shared posts on social media warning of a SARS-like virus spreading in the city last year in December, died in February of 2020 after contracting the fatal disease, but it was his contribution that brought to light the fatality of the impending pandemic.

When we hear the word whistle-blower, we often think of corporate espionage and governmental secrets—we think of people striving for justice and of people who have defected from their loyalties.

But why do whistleblowers do what they did? Is whistleblowing done to solve a problem?

John Kiriakou, former CIA analyst, in 2007, revealed in an interview to ABC News that the intelligence organisation was using waterboarding alongside various other processes that he described as torture to interrogate al-Qaeda prisoners. Kiriakou was the very first government official to confirm the use of waterboarding by the CIA, despite the then-resident, George W. Bush repeatedly denying the use of such methods. He was investigated for years and was sentenced thirty years in prison on the account of having committed five criminal offences, including two charges of espionage. Kiriakou has been extremely vocal about his opinions and his experiences—from TED talks to interviews, to books—and his reason for doing what he did is always the same—to let people know the truth.

Like Kiriakou, almost all whistleblowers hold the same philosophy of exposing wrong-doings taking place within their organisations and companies. They believe that people deserve to know the truth and get to know what’s happening in their own environments.

While constantly grappling for the truth in order to maintain a sense of democracy is a just and viable reason to whistle-blow, the question of whether whistle-blowing is always helpful and good arises

Edward Snowden, one of the most famous whistle-blowers in the world, and depending on who you ask, a traitor or a hero, revealed one of the biggest cover-ups in American history. Snowden leaked highly classified information from the National Security Agency (NSA) of the United States in 2013, which revealed that the NSA had been monitoring and tracking the digital communications of American citizens. Instead of leaking the information directly, Snowden passed it onto journalists to fact check and publish for the people to see.

The New York Times, however, published an excerpt that wasn’t redacted properly, thus inadvertently revealing to people that surveillance was being done in Mosul on Al Qaeda. While Snowden accredits this to the fact nothing is without risk, and sometimes mistakes do happen, the weight of the consequences is heavy-handed. So is the risk really worth the reward? Is exposing potentially dangerous and harmful information worth the transparency that follows?

It also raises the question of whether whistle-blowing is the same as taking action—you’ve uncovered a cover-up and exposed it to the world, now what? The round-about answer to this is: the respective authorities will take care of it. But what if the authorities investigating the case are the ones who covered it up? If the lawmakers and the government bodies that exist to protect the people and serve as peacemakers are the ones doing the wrongdoings then why should someone who exposed it to the rest of the world be punished and not the government bodies?

‘Quis custodiet ipsos custodes’—Who watches the watchmen?

Take again the case of waterboarding within the CIA—President Bush had repeatedly been denying the existence of waterboarding as an interrogation method in the CIA before Kiriakou blew the whistle.

The consequences were as such: President Bush, who personally signed off on the use of waterboarding which at the time was also a federal crime, faced an impeachment trial that ultimately cleared him of all charges, while Kiriakou was convicted for thirty years for exposing information to the world.

What about those who carried the operation out, and those who covered it up?

Bush faced the repercussions of his actions by the American people—but what about situations where the problem isn’t as black-and-white as was in this case?

When we start to talk about the importance of such knowledge, especially in information surrounding governmental secrets, the question of whether we’re even equipped with the capacity to have the conversation arises—whether we even fundamentally understand the gravitas of certain information.

Political satirist John Oliver, in a segment of his show Last Week Tonight, explored to what depth people registered information that had been leaked by whistle-blower Edward Snowden. The comedian interviewed Snowden within the same segment in 2015. The Last Week Tonight team had interviewed people on the street asking them if they knew who Edward Snowden was and if they knew what he did. Most people failed to recognise him and what the information he had leaked even pertained to. However, when the same people were asked if they would be concerned if the Government would have access to their personal pictures, people registered it is as a grave crime and were extremely against it.

The point that Oliver was trying to prove was that at times certain information is just incomprehensible till it is put into simple terms—the layperson may not understand IT jargon, but they do care about their privacy, they do care about transparency.

Ultimately, why do we call these whistleblowers traitors, tattletales, rats or weasels? Is believing in exposing the truth inherently immoral?

One small kernel of truth can go a long way—the revealing of a secret can change our perception of how the world works and result in better laws to curb such activity in the future. One small piece of information can put those who hide behind facades of innocence and morality behind bars or even bring to light the wrong-doings committed by them in broad daylight.

Edited by: Anjali Dinesh

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