The first thing whistleblowers learn upon blowing the whistle is that speech is not really free. Freedom of speech depends on what you say. The truths that expose corruption come with a price. Whistleblowers pay that price.
Freedom of speech has been discussed more in recent times as a result of three unrelated issues:
the Israel Folau case;
the ‘Review of Freedom of Speech in Australian Universities’ by former Chief Justice Robert French; and
the raids by the Australian Federal Police (AFP) on offices of journalists involved in the “2017 Afghan Files” stories.
These issues are unrelated but are connected. They all relate to how freely we can speak.
For years now, the OECD corruption watchdogs have been recommending that Australia improve its protection for whistleblowers. In their latest report last December, they pointed to some work that had been done towards this but still expressed concerns.
And with good reason.
‘The more the authorities claim their secrecy is in the “national interest”, the less it’s likely that what they are up to is in the public interest.’
Exclusive: Whistleblower says citizens have benefited from his disclosure in 2013 of US and UK government surveillance
The prosecution of Freya Newman, court actions against news outlets and police investigations of immigration leaks show the war on whistleblowers is escalating
Freedom is difficult to resuscitate once extinguished. Australian attorney-general George Brandis recently chastised journalists for criticising his government’s new laws aimed at preventing reporting about “special intelligence operations”. Because he’s a culture warrior brawler, Brandis damned the “usual suspects of the paranoid, fantasist left” but also “reputable conservative commentators” for questioning his judgment over what citizens should and should not learn through the media.
“Never believe anything until it’s officially denied” was a favourite expression of the Irish journalist Claud Cockburn, father of the British reporter Patrick Cockburn. It’s a motto worth remembering as we’re faced with a barrage of state-led and private interest attacks on leaks and leakers.
The examples are many, but what occurred on Thursday raises grave concerns for whistleblowers in Australia. Take the case of Freya Newman, a young and part-time librarian at Whitehouse School of Design in Sydney. She accessed information on the institute’s computer system that showed prime minister Tony Abbott’s daughter, Frances Abbott, received a “chairman’s scholarship” worth $60,000.
Newman has pleaded guilty to the offence of unauthorised access to a computer system, and on Thursday appeared in court. The prosecution appeared not to be pushing for a jail sentence but a record of the crime. The fact remains that Newman has been aggressively pursued for a noble example of exposing a matter of public interest.
Newman’s whistleblowing was defended by lawyer Julian Burnside as vital insights into secret access and clearly should be designated as in the public interest. Crucially, he notes that she would have been likely protected by whistleblower protection if working for a government organisation but she was exposed to legal censure because she was employed by a private organisation.
Independent news website New Matilda has released a slew of leaks this year and faced heavy, but predictable criticism. New Matilda operates differently, aiming to piss off the pompously positioned. The current controversy over Sydney University’s Barry Spurr, a consultant to the Abbott government’s review of the national curriculum, is yet another case of smearing a whistle-blower who released a slew of racist and sexist emails to New Matilda.
In an outrageous attack on press freedom, Spurr has tried to legally force New Matilda to reveal its sources and prevent them publishing anything else related to the story. It’s a case of attempted intimidation that New Matilda has happily challenged, and later on Thursday Spurr dropped his bid to expose the source, although the case is still continuing. I’m yet to read other media outlets offering support for the small publisher.
Rather than address the issues raised by Spurr’s compromised position as a man who longs for colonial times, The Australian’s Sharri Markson reported that the emails may have been obtained by hacking, allegations slammed by editor Chris Graham.
The source of the leak is again questioned in an Australian editorial: “the [New Matilda] website maintains [the story] is based on leaks from a source, rather than hacking, as Professor Spurr alleges”. Even entertainer Barry Humphries has damned the release of the emails, wilfully ignoring the political significance of such a man with vile views to perpetuate white Australia in the education system of the 21st century.
There are many other examples of this war on whistleblowers in Australia. Immigration minister Scott Morrison has maintained a medieval seal on details over his border security policy and yet has been happy to find friendly, News Corp Australia reporters to smear critics of his policy. The government has now referred Save the Children workers to be investigated by the Australian Federal Police over “unauthorised” disclosures of information. It was clear intimidation, designed to make employees shut up.
In a haze of claims and counter-claims, with Operation Sovereign Borders celebrated as saving taxpayer dollars, the detail of a breach of security within the department is ignored or dismissed as insignificant. The source of these allegations against Save the Children was first reported in a Daily Telegraph story as being from an intelligence report that they also appear to have been leaked, and which was published on the day of Morrison’s announcement about the investigation. Leaking to obedient journalists doesn’t indicate a healthy whistle-blower culture but rather a docile political environment that rewards favouritism. It reduces democracy to sanctioned drops into reporter’s in-boxes.
Amidst all the fury over angry ideologues concerned that their bigoted conservative values are under attack lie the importance of whistle-blowing without fear or favour. It’s a global problem that’s being led by Nobel Peace Prize winner himself, US president Barack Obama. His administration is publicly supportive of disclosure while prosecuting countless people including the New York Times’ James Risen and perfecting the selective leak to cosy reporters. It’s a particular problem with national security journalism, where the vast bulk of writing is left to stenographers of the bloated intelligence and military apparatus.
Effective whistleblower legislation in democracies isn’t enough because governments have proven their willingness to protect anything that embarrasses or shames them. The persecution of Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and Thomas Drake, amongst others, is about saving face and not lives. Journalists, aggressive media companies and citizens must revolt and challenge the very fundamentals of our secretive age. This means publishing state and business secrets and widening the overly narrow definition of what constitutes being in the public interest.
Rejecting the criminalising of journalism should be in every reporter’s DNA. The Snowden releases have fundamentally altered the ways in which we understand digital journalism and how we must protect sources away from prying private and government eyes.
Over a year ago I wrote an article outlining the range of documents and stories that need to be told by the invaluable work of whistle-blowers. Today I’m calling for all documents that reveal the operational details of Operation Sovereign Borders, the legal justification for providing Iraqi immunity for Australian special forces in Iraq and the evidence of Australian acquiescence in abandoning citizen Julian Assange at London’s Ecuadorian embassy.
A grim picture of the US and Britain’s legacy in Iraq has been revealed in a massive leak of American military documents that detail torture, summary executions and war crimes.
Almost 400,000 secret US army field reports have been passed to the Guardian and a number of other international media organisations via the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks.
The electronic archive is believed to emanate from the same dissident US army intelligence analyst who earlier this year is alleged to have leaked a smaller tranche of 90,000 logs chronicling bloody encounters and civilian killings in the Afghan war.
The new logs detail how:
• US authorities failed to investigate hundreds of reports of abuse, torture, rape and even murder by Iraqi police and soldiers whose conduct appears to be systematic and normally unpunished.
• A US helicopter gunship involved in a notorious Baghdad incident had previously killed Iraqi insurgents after they tried to surrender.
• More than 15,000 civilians died in previously unknown incidents. US and UK officials have insisted that no official record of civilian casualties exists but the logs record 66,081 non-combatant deaths out of a total of 109,000 fatalities.
The numerous reports of detainee abuse, often supported by medical evidence, describe prisoners shackled, blindfolded and hung by wrists or ankles, and subjected to whipping, punching, kicking or electric shocks. Six reports end with a detainee’s apparent death.
As recently as December the Americans were passed a video apparently showing Iraqi army officers executing a prisoner in Tal Afar, northern Iraq. The log states: “The footage shows approximately 12 Iraqi army soldiers. Ten IA soldiers were talking to one another while two soldiers held the detainee. The detainee had his hands bound … The footage shows the IA soldiers moving the detainee into the street, pushing him to the ground, punching him and shooting him.”
The report named at least one perpetrator and was passed to coalition forces. But the logs reveal that the coalition has a formal policy of ignoring such allegations. They record “no investigation is necessary” and simply pass reports to the same Iraqi units implicated in the violence. By contrast all allegations involving coalition forces are subject to formal inquiries. Some cases of alleged abuse by UK and US troops are also detailed in the logs.
WikiLeaks says it is posting online the entire set of 400,000 Iraq field reports – in defiance of the Pentagon.The whistleblowing activists say they have deleted all names from the documents that might result in reprisals. They were accused by the US military of possibly having “blood on their hands” over the previous Afghan release by redacting too few names. But the military recently conceded that no harm had been identified.
Condemning this fresh leak, however, the Pentagon said: “This security breach could very well get our troops and those they are fighting with killed. Our enemies will mine this information looking for insights into how we operate, cultivate sources and react in combat situations, even the capability of our equipment.”