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Impacting Policy: Blowing the whistle on corruption

Impacting Policy: Blowing the whistle on corruption

1 November 2021

The shocking revelations shed light on the US government’s illegal programmes of global mass surveillance and Snowden was forced to flee the country, becoming an asylum seeker in Hong Kong and forging an alliance with his defence lawyer, Robert Tibbo, the prominent human rights lawyer and activist.

The interview raises several key issues that have wide-ranging ramifications for government agencies, regulators, lawyers and journalists across the globe, including the vital role of whistleblowers as a check on abuses of power; the limitations of existing formal whistleblowing mechanisms; the crucial role that supporters and helpers can play in the whistleblowing process; and the illegal (and unjust) government surveillance of activists, protesters and journalists.

Professor Munro says: “All of these important issues are tied in with societal concerns about the protection of basic human rights, such as the right to privacy and freedom of expression, as well as government retaliation against whistleblowers and their supporters and helpers. The Snowden case uncovers many issues that had been bubbling away under the surface but had never been properly brought into the public eye.

“In the interview, Mr Tibbo makes frequent references to the work of the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Counter Terrorism. He notes that, in many respects, the Special Rapporteur had already discovered some of the issues that were later revealed by Snowden regarding the use of illegal mass surveillance by Western governments and the use of secrecy by government organisations to avoid proper democratic accountability, as well as concerns about inadequate oversight and whistleblowing mechanisms within intelligence organisations in order to prevent abuses of power.”

The interview raises the key question of how to afford better protection to whistleblowers who disclose state information in the public interest, and what needs to be done to change the current climate to encourage more people to step forward without fear of reprisal. Mr Tibbo gives an insight into the kinds of retaliation to which whistleblowers such as Snowden were subjected to, and the retaliation against the lawyers, journalists, activists and others who help these whistleblowers. In Snowden’s case, this retaliation was especially apparent in the severe harassment of the asylum seekers who had helped him hide in Hong Kong, the “Snowden refugees”.

However, whilst Mr Tibbo acknowledges the need for new mechanisms, he also recognises their limitations in affecting institutional change.

In the interview he says: “Would that person [whistleblower] be able to get through to the independent mechanism or would something happen to them? For example, would they be arrested under the Espionage Act [which has already happened to several NSA whistleblowers]? Would they disappear and be renditioned? Or would they die in a car accident? So, even if you put in a whistleblowing mechanism now, I have my doubts that it is going to be very effective.”

The question, then, is what can be done to alter the current status quo? Mr Tibbo advocates radical democratic action and the importance of human activist movements that can lobby governments and campaign for change via the media.

Professor Munro says: “Mr Tibbo’s view is that in full democracies it’s really up to individual activist groups to raise these critical issues, write to locally elected politicians and members of parliament and raise concerns about the very issues that Edward Snowden raised. We need to find ways of holding institutions to account to protect theindividual’s fundamental rights and freedoms.

“The media needs to do more on this. Currently there’s a poor level of reporting on whistleblowers, with many news reports containing misinformed comments or partial accounts of what’s really going on. We need journalists to step up their investigative reporting, although perhaps many publishers don’t have the resources to do this in the current economic climate.The media is essential to the democratic mission to uncover secrecy and illegal behaviour in governmental organisations.”

Effective journalism is even more important given the competing tensions between human rights legislation and national security laws which hamper the legal system. In the interview, Mr Tibbo expresses his frustration at how lawyers are forced to operate with one hand tied behind their back, unable to get the courts to disclose evidence of human rights violations because this would put confidential information in the public domain.

In many cases, disclosing “state secrets” would contravene security laws, so the courts are unable to use vital evidence to prove that human rights breaches have taken place. Mr Tibbo highlights how the appalling treatment of whistleblowers, as well as being a gross infringement of their basic human rights, is designed to have a chilling effect on others who might speak out about corruption.

Professor Munro says: “Mr Tibbo expressed concern that big data is being used as a tool to track and target people even when they are completely innocent. In some cases, the data is modified, incomplete or ambiguous, yet people have been arrested and detained on the back of it.

“The problem has been compounded by the willingness of some large corporations, such as mobile phone manufacturers and Internet firms, to comply with government requests for data. It’s all very ‘Big Brother’; governments have the ability to look at your e-mails, track your Internet and telephone use. All of this is an infringement of human rights and must be brought into the public consciousness.”

As well as raising practical, real-world concerns, the interview makes a unique contribution to academic literature. The critical issues relating to whistleblowing and organisational secrecy that it highlights have yet to be subject to in-depth research in organisation and critical management studies.

Professor Munro says: “More scrutiny is needed in this area as the issues raised are so important, not only for researchers but also for governments, regulators and anyone with an interest in the infringement of human rights. Hopefully my interview with Robert Tibbo provides a helpful introductory discussion of these issues from a key figure who has had first-hand experience in confronting them.”

The Snowden case uncovers many issues that had been bubbling away under the surface but had never been properly brought into the public eye.

Professor Iain Munro, Professor of Leadership & Organisation Change.