2020-06-23 01:47 (Tue)
A Question of Free Speech vs. Accountability
A Question of Free Speech vs. Accountability
  • Chrysan Angela / Jae Hwan Jeong
  • Approved 2019.11.20 22:23
  • Comments 0
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There is an eternal conflict of interest in journalism: the need to protect vulnerable whistleblowers and the obligation to tend to the public’s right to know. Publications cannot assume to hold the gavel when it comes to deciding their fate. However, with the recent disclosure from The New York Times of the man whose complaint led to an impeachment inquiry of President Trump, the arguments on whether whistleblowers need protecting are becoming ever more heated.

A Whistleblower's Saga

By Chrysan Angela Staff Reporter

There was once a fabled whistle, known to exist but feared and admonished. For eons this weapon lay untouched, but eventually, a brave individual found this whistle, blew it, and set the world on fire. The saga does not end there; in fact, that was only the prologue. The actual story begins with a question: should the whistleblower, if they wish their actions to remain unsung, reveal themselves to the public, or not? As their story unfolds, it will be clear that although there are many reasons to support either stance, it is more sensible to respect their anonymity. 

First and foremost, a whistleblower attempts to warn the ignorant public about a serious danger they did not even know existed, one that could potentially cause detrimental consequences if left unreported. However, it is also true that this person still started a fire that would not have been ignited had they left the whistle alone. As such, we could argue that they should take responsibility, come out of the shadows, and let the public judge their case. If we choose to go with the second option, though, things get even more dangerous for our poor whistleblower. Depending on how they got ahold of the information — the “whistle” — and under what context, they could either be celebrated as a hero or condemned as a villain.

In the Trump whistleblower case, it is arguably easier to regard the whistleblower as a hero. According to leaked information, he is a CIA officer who once worked at the White House, and is an expert on European issues, including Ukraine. He was just doing his job: he wanted to report President Trump’s possible misconduct and filed his complaint in accordance with proper legal procedures. Thus, The New York Times (NYT)’s claim to release his personal information in order to let the public judge his credibility is not a valid reason. As Jon Marshall — a professor at Northwestern University’s journalism school — said, it would have been enough for NYT to simply mention that he was a CIA officer. Only a few people fit the exact description NYT provided, and at the time of writing, President Trump himself had expressed his desire “to meet his accuser”. The informant would soon have to spend the rest of his life paying the price of whistleblowing.

On the contrary, the ethics of a whistleblower’s actions might be more ambiguous in other cases. Take Julian Assange, for instance, who had no official ties with the government but leaked tons of confidential information to WikiLeaks through hacking. Another notorious example is Edward Snowden, who disclosed thousands of classified National Security Agency (NSA) documents after quitting his job at an NSA facility. It is true that he had sworn not to leak confidential secrets, but if we were to believe his claim that he had talked to more than ten officials before resorting to whistleblowing, we would agree that that was the only thing he could do besides keeping his mouth shut. Take a look at their current lives: Assange is incarcerated at a prison in England and Snowden is living at a secret tightly guarded location in Russia.

No matter what the means and objectives are, a whistleblower’s story almost never ends happily. Before we reach the conclusion of this saga, bear in mind that out of 7.7 billion people, only a handful were brave enough to blow the whistle and risk their lives to alert the rest of the unsuspecting population. Considering this, the least we could do is to defend their anonymity. Simply protecting them from the fate of having their pursuers constantly hunt them for their lives would be our way of saying “thanks”.

Anonymity Does Not Guarantee Safety

By Jae Hwan Jeong Senior Staff Reporter

Modeling a problem in a hypothetical scenario, ceteris paribus, leads to ethical dilemmas. They are characterized by two options, neither of which resolves the situation in a novel or even acceptable fashion. When dealing with real world problems, however, we need to remind ourselves of the flexibility of the problem’s domain — critically weigh short term and long term effects as well as its scope of influence. As for the recent controversy over media’s exposure of whistleblowers, it is inappropriate to judge them based on a simple conflict of interest. 

Claiming that the publication of information has rendered the whistleblower vulnerable is as myopic as believing that revelation of Trump’s soliciting of foreign interference during his election would result in impeachment. People seem to believe that the main debate is on what is more important between one’s security and the public’s right to know. However, that skips past many assumptions that need to be evaluated beforehand: what implications such disclosures have, and whether opening up the question of credibility to the public is tantamount to snitching.

First of all, media disclosure of whistleblowers’ identities may actually offer them better protection. There are many mechanisms in place to encourage whistleblowing across all institutions. Former president Obama’s executive order PPD-19 hoped to create a safe space for whistleblowing in the national intelligence community, and the well known Sarbanes-Oxley Act passed in 2002 obligates publicly traded companies to have channels for reporting of accounting or audit frauds. Yet, there is barely any monitoring going on to see if these laws are actually being put into action.

The legislative structures made to protect whistleblowers seem evidently more ineffectual when we inspect the recent case of supposed “federal protection”. CBS’ 60 minutes tweeted that  “the government whistleblower who set off the impeachment inquiry of President Trump is under federal protection because they fear for their safety”. However, closer examination revealed that the lawyers of the whistleblower had merely requested that Joseph Maguire, the Acting Director of National Intelligence, assign “appropriate resources to ensure [their client’s] safety”. In other words, many were given a false impression that the individual was under federal custody when in reality, the individual was only in the process of seeking it. If the individual was kept anonymous, and hence if we were to be hanging on a single publication’s words to track his status, we would never have any third-party validation.

With that being said, we also need to look at what the motivations of the whistleblower are. As the intelligence community inspector general has recently noted, the whistleblower has political bias towards Trump’s opposition and there is enough room for us to suspect that it is a politically motivated act. All of a sudden, it has become a debate on the credibility of the whistleblower. An array of opinions, whether true or not, provide better insight into any situation. There is no “democratic approach” in allowing a single channel to monopolize information.

With fake news and politically motivated mediums that splay unverifiable information to arouse public emotions, having as many sources as possible is the only way to guarantee true transparency. Just as protestors and activists don’t base their actions on total security, so do whistleblowers — the need to propagate their views or knowledge is what drives them forward. With the understanding that transparency trumps anonymity both in terms of whistleblowers’ security and effectiveness of their agenda, hopefully the media and the public can find a common ground to facilitate civil bravery.


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