Whistleblowers from within institutions, corporations, government departments, police or military can be critical to movement success, and their testimony is often the key to exposing and resisting injustice and creating change.
Institutions clamp down on and deter whistleblowing for good reason. Whistleblowers can shake major institutions. They can feed vital information to movements, can warn activists about impending threats, can expose corruption, public health dangers and reduce the power of governments and deep state agencies. Disclosing secrets and releasing information poses high risks and personal costs and always takes a fair degree of courage. To expose an injustice, whistleblowers will have to trust who they are communicating with.
Nonviolent politics has long recognized that societal institutions, even rigid hierarchies such as the police or military, are not monolithic, but are in fact riddled with dissent. Institutions are made up of individual human beings. Despite well-developed cultural, legal and bureaucratic mechanisms used to enforce internal obedience and discipline, whistleblowing and other forms of internal resistance are surprisingly common.
So, what can activists, organizers and movements do to encourage and support whistleblowers?
1. Don’t alienate them.
Avoid generalized public statements that are likely to deter whistleblowers from approaching you. Saying things like “All cops are bastards” or “Everyone who works for Exxon should be charged with crimes against humanity” are likely to dissuade potential whistleblowers from contacting you. If the activist group or movement is perceived to be hostile, violent, unorganized or antagonistic then being approached by a whistleblower is far less likely. Targeting critiques toward management, government leaders or the decision-makers and not ordinary workers or the rank and file makes an approach more likely.
2. Send out invitations.
Publicly address and encourage people within the institution to blow the whistle on unjust or illegal practices. Talk about “people of conscience” within the institution. Actively and openly call upon people of courage and conviction within the ranks to tell their story. At rallies and public events engage with staff or rank-and-file workers to demonstrate that you are not hostile to them as individuals.
3. Communicate your support.
Use leaflets, speeches, union newsletters, social media and statements to the mainstream media to show that you or the movement can be trusted to support and protect whistleblowers. Let them know that you are open to hearing from them. Don’t make promises you can’t keep but offer support when and where you can.
4. Create and promote avenues for interaction.
Develop or utilize secure anonymous document drop links that you actively monitor. SecureDrop is one open-source whistleblower submission system that media organizations can use to securely accept documents from and communicate with anonymous sources. It was originally created by the late Aaron Swartz and is currently managed by Freedom of the Press Foundation.
Develop activities or events that encourage interaction between the movement and staff. Organize a BBQ or dinner for staff, a public meeting for workers where they can hear about the movement. In Australia at Roxby Downs, anti-uranium activists held public meetings in the township to listen to the concerns of mine workers and their families. During the Vietnam War peace activists and veteran groups set up G.I. Coffee Houses near military bases. The principle is the same: Positive interaction generates trust and encourages internal dissent.
5. Prioritize and actively engage with any contacts.
Potential whistleblowers will often put out subtle “feelers” long before disclosing who they are or before releasing any information. They are seeking trusted contacts and testing you out. How activists respond to these initial contacts can be critical. Be open to communication that may appear suspicious at first or from dubious or anonymous sources. The general rule is to be respectful and courteous to all contacts as any one of them could end up being a critically important whistleblower.
6. Ensure confidentiality.
If a potential whistleblower does make contact with you and identifies themselves in some way, make it a priority and do everything possible to ensure confidentiality. Drop other work if you need to in order to engage with them.
7. Conduct a risk assessment.
The risks for a whistleblower increase dramatically once they have made contact or gone public. Discuss with them what their fears and concerns are and help them conduct a risk assessment, which is essentially listing, discussing and then evaluating each identified risk. Seek out legal support for them that is capable of advising and advocating for them in the case of legal sanctions. Whistleblowers may be breaking contracts, agreements, regulations and laws in order to make information public. Form a small and capable support team around the whistleblower.
The decision to go to the media needs to be considered carefully and the whistleblower should be supported to make the best and safest decision for them as they will bear the vast bulk of any consequences. Having a high profile in the media can be a risk but can also lead to additional safety.
If the decision is made to go to the media, choose the most experienced journalist in the most reputable media outlet available. Take the time to find the right one. Professional journalists who adhere to professional ethics should protect sources and may be able to work with you on making information go public safely. But not all journalists will act ethically and will also have their own interests in breaking a story. You can act as a go-between at the early stages to reduce the risks for the whistleblower.
8. Share resources for whistleblowers
Provide them with a copy of “The Whistleblower’s Handbook: How to Be an Effective Resister” by Brian Martin. It is out of print but available online here. Based upon hundreds of interviews with whistleblowers, this book provides insights, lessons and important advice for people considering blowing the whistle in the public interest.
9. Be ready to provide protection.
Work with your networks or activist group to provide as much support, security or protection as possible. In some cases this may mean making sure someone trusted is with them 24 hours a day for a while. This form of “protective accompaniment” would mean creating a roster to have trusted people stay with the person and a protocol to alert more support if there is a threat or incident.
10. Prepare to give ongoing support.
Whistleblowers are often risking their safety, careers, incomes and reputations when deciding to release information on corruption or injustice. They will face damaging personal attacks and harassment, traumatic and long legal battles and possibly imprisonment. They deserve the ongoing and long-term support of the movement. Some movements have set up ongoing support groups for whistleblowers that raise funds and generate public and political support.
The Chelsea Manning Support Network operated for seven years and was able to cover 100 percent of Chelsea Manning’s legal fees throughout her court martial – nearly $400,000 – and mount a huge publicity campaign to raise awareness about her situation. Other groups like the Courage Foundation support several “truth-tellers” internationally, and fundraise for the legal and public defense of specific individuals who risk life or liberty to make significant contributions to the historical record and are subject to serious prosecution or persecution. The more support existing whistleblowers receive, the more likely others will follow.
Whistleblowing poses a serious threat to power, privilege and the continuation of anti-democratic or authoritarian practices. Our movements grow stronger when we support them. Every bit of encouragement, support and protection you can provide is worth it.