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  • Transparency Networks

How Whistle-Blowers shaped History

In a world controlled by gatekeepers and spin doctors, the best critical eye is often one on the inside. Real change can be affected only by individuals close enough to witness evidence of wrongdoing. So, it’s not an overstatement to say that whistleblowers can and have changed the world.

Speaking up is easier than done. There’s no person better to affirm the fact than ourselves. How many of us have witnessed something unethical, considered reporting it, but decided against it? It happens to the best of us, and there’s no shame in admitting it.

Many people struggle with coming forward, especially if it involves speaking truth to power. And who can blame them? Regardless of where you come from, there exists a universal sentiment about whistleblowers – we don’t like them, they can’t be trusted.

News headlines show us how whistleblowers everywhere are under attack. The fear of retaliation stops many people from reporting wrongdoing. Threats to life, jobs, and living in perpetual paranoia are uncomfortably real.

The whistleblowing quandary

Taking a grave personal risk for the public interest is a good thing – or should be, at least. Read any interviews of whistleblowers, and you’ll find they chose to speak up out of moral duty.

Yet, it’s whistle blowers’ loyalty, motives, and trustworthiness that come into question time and again. Seen as both heroic and reprehensible, whistleblowing is inseparable from this warped sense of ethics.

“Luxleaks” whistleblower Antoine Deltour is intimately familiar with this odd boomerang effect. In 2011, Deltour uncovered evidence of staggering tax evasion - where companies such as Dyson and Amazon could reduce their tax to zero thanks to a sweet deal with Luxembourg. He passed on this incriminating evidence to a French journalist, Edouard Perrin.

What followed was systematic vilification of Deltour’s motives and credibility. Luxembourg called the leak an attack on the country. Deltour was fined, convicted of theft, and received a 12-month suspended sentence. Although his conviction was finally quashed, Deltour could have been fined a million euros – because he reported tax evasion!

Catch 22

Whistleblower provisions aren’t of much help. The way current regulation works, employees can be held responsible if they have knowledge of wrongdoing but don’t report it. These regulations seem at odds with stark realities. Employees get fired for speaking the truth - their career prospects are usually bleak after. Let’s not forget the stigma of being a “snitch” and routine shaming by coworkers, friends, and the larger community. For anyone who chooses to take it, the road can be lonely to the point of crippling alienation.

The value of whistleblowing

There’s enough historical evidence showing the valuable contributions of whistleblowers to society. Remember Watergate? It was Deep Throat’s information that unravelled the Nixon administration’s misdeeds. The great fall of Enron? Once again, made possible by Sherron Watkins, former Enron VP and whistleblower. And who can forget the efforts of Chelsea Manning? She was both valorized and deemed a traitor for leaking classified military logs in Iraq and Afghanistan via WikiLeaks. The documents revealed how US air strikes were responsible for 10,000 more civilian deaths than officially acknowledged.

Change in the making

Attitudes have changed over the years, in part due to the efforts of groups fighting for whistleblower rights. As discussions become more mainstream, general awareness on workplace rights and reporting unlawful activities like fraud, money laundering etc. have increased.

We’ve also seen massive cultural shifts. In 2002, TIME magazine carried the image of three whistleblowers – Sherron Watkins, Colleen Rowley, Cynthia Cooper – as persons of the year on its cover. What’s more, research has shown that at least 22 per cent of whistleblowers report retaliation.

Whistleblowers expose fraud and corruption that would otherwise go unnoticed. When they choose to report wrongdoing, they perform a vital public service. The world must recognise the intent – which is fairness, not fame.

We must also recognize the sheer will and courage it takes to be a whistleblower. Their efforts need hope and knowing they have sanctuary - which society, community, law, and regulation must provide.


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