Whistleblowers, whether painted as heroes or villains, have entered global mainstream culture, thanks to figures such as Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, and the media or film attention they have received. But what is the real life of whistleblowers, and what motivates them to sacrifice their private lives, careers and sometimes their very lives to expose abuse of power?
In order to find some answers, Global Voices (GV) talked to Tatiana Bazzichelli, a Berlin-based writer, academic, activist and founder of the Disruption Network Lab, a platform advocating for the convergence of human rights, technology and the arts. Bazzichelli has recently edited “Whistleblowing for Change” (that can be downloaded for free here) an anthology of interviews with and writings by whistleblowers and researchers from Europe, Turkey and the US. Given how loaded the term whistleblower has become, the first question GV asked was about its definition:
Whistleblowing is a term that is difficult to translate in many languages. In some countries, the translation is even misleading, because it focuses on the negative effects of it, and tends to stigmatise such an act as something deplorable. Whistleblowers are people who report wrongdoing, cases of corruption, misconduct in the workplace, but also serious forms of political and social abuse, revealing information of public interest that needs to be disclosed. Whistleblowers denounce behaviours that they consider illegal or abusive, perpetrated by the systems of which they are part, or whose internal logics they know well. In a broad sense, whistleblowing is a practice of informing the public about unknown facts that need to be revealed. The book “Whistleblowing for Change“ investigates whistleblowing as a developing political practice that has the capacity to provoke social change through thirty personal stories written by whistleblowers, journalists, activists, artists, researchers and critical thinkers.
Given the extremely high personal price most whistleblowers have to pay, GV asked Bazzichelli what could be their motivation as they step up publicly to denounce injustice:
The best people to answer to this question would be the whistleblowers themselves, because blowing the whistle is an act that is both public and personal. However, the understanding that I got from meeting many whistleblowers is that they are seeking for justice. I see whistleblowing as a mindset that motivates people to report behaviour that is harmful to society. It is impossible to my point of view to understand the deeper meaning of whistleblowing without getting to know the people who are personally involved. Blowing the whistle changes the lives of everyone involved in this process, and many whistleblowers wish to help change the lives of all of us for the better. Unfortunately, this is not always the case.
Indeed the consequences for speaking up are dramatic and can be lethal: They often include social death, detention, hate speech, rejection by family and peers, hefty penalties and prison time, long-term unemployment, health issues, and, in some cases abduction, torture and death. As Bazzichelli explains:
In many social and cultural contexts, whistleblowing is still targeted as a form of treason. The consequence is that whistleblowers are persecuted, ignored, isolated, and strong measures are implemented against them. The idea of producing “evidence” and revealing information of public interest from within the systems is not always seen as something positive. There is an ingrained discriminatory practice embedded in many workplaces and institutions, which sees the person who uncovers illegal activities and illicit deals as a traitor. This provokes a climate of intimidation, bullying and fewer people are inclined to support whistleblowers, feel close to them, or follow their steps. I believe we should do the opposite. We need to demystify the act of blowing the whistle, better inform the public on its meaning, and show that this courageous choice is helping society to become more just.
In such difficult context, can movies, activism and testimonies change the narrative about whistleblowers being perceived as traitors? Bazzichelli proposes a nuanced answer:
I would like to mention the work of great film directors such as Sonia Kennebeck, that directed the film “United States vs. Reality Winner” — the story of 25-year-old NSA contractor and whistleblower Reality Winner — and the film “National Bird,” that focused on the US drone programme through the personal perspectives of whistleblowers and survivors of drone strikes in Afghanistan; or the Italian film “Never Whistle Alone” by Marco Ferrari, that gives an insight into the phenomenon of retaliation that whistleblowers experience in the workplaces after speaking out. Of course, we all know the films of Laura Poitras, and her 2014 Academy Award winning documentary “Citizenfour” about the story of Edward Snowden and his exposure of NSA mass surveillance — we speak extensively about the motivations behind her film in the interview for our book. However, the journalistic organisation that mostly challenged the infamous narrative about whistleblowers being traitors to my point of view has been WikiLeaks and the network around it. WikiLeaks has revolutionised journalism since its foundation in 2006. Thanks to Julian Assange and his team, major war crimes and global misgovernance have been revealed.
She also seems to agree whistleblowing should be treated as a civil right:
Whistleblowers help to expose systems of power and injustice, and often pay a high price for revealing the truth. If we would understand whistleblowing as an act of civic consciousness, then there would be less persecution for them and a more just society. I propose to conceptually expand this act to a set of practices at the cultural, political, technological, and artistic levels. It is our responsibility to work raising public awareness of whistleblowing and opposing the persecution of truth-tellers and whistleblowers. Collectively, we should support those who have decided to fight for the good of society. This is the reason why the book features contributions not only from whistleblowers, such as Brandon Bryant, John Kiriakou, Lisa Ling, Cian Westmoreland and Daniel Hale, but also from people who have been close to the experience of whistleblowers, such as Billie Winner-Davis (Reality Winner's mother), Laura Poitras, Frederik Obermaier and Bastian Obermayer, Annie Machon, Simona Levi, Suelette Dreyfus and Naomi Colvin, and other writers and activists working to expose wrongdoing and forms of social injustice, such as Barrett Brown, Lauri Love and Daryl Davis, to name a few.
To change the narrative of treason, whistleblowing can also be approached as a form of disruption, as Bazzichelli argues in the book. Here is how she came to link those two concepts:
The idea of the book is to link whistleblowing to disruptive practices, as an intervention that challenges closed systems from within and changes the regular state of things to provoke change. In 2011 I wrote a book about the need to re-appropriate the concept of disruption from business culture, to apply it on art and activism to imagine a different political opposition that comes from within the systems that we are trying to confront. In recent years, the idea of disruption has been re-appropriated by populists, but with very different means — to enhance more power and provoke chaos, to spread fake news and misinformation, rather than dismantle power logics as a cause of oppression to society. It is an endless feedback look. We need to re-appropriate disruption once again. I believe that whistleblowers are those from whom to be inspired.