Protecting whistle-blowers

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Protecting whistle-blowers

Thank you to all the Conversation Leaders for their time and commitment to taking part in this important conversation. Please take a moment to learn about the conversation leaders by clicking on their profile photos.

Below is a list of questions to serve as a starting framework for the discussion in this thread:

  • What protections must be in place to safeguard whistleblowers from retaliation?
    • What tactics can be used to accomplish this?
  • What role do governments place in protecting whistleblowers?
    • How can activists play an active role in impact legislation?

Accessing information and disclosures from Whistle-Blowers is an invaluable tool in combatting corruption especially systemic pervasive  corruption. It is necessary to have a defined framework which stipulates the various steps that need to be taken. This ranges from simple steps to access the information in a safe manner to more involved processes for removal and relocation. It si important to have an exit option for a whistle-blower even when the disclosed facts cannot be proved. This is necessary to prevent stifling of whistle-blowers. Ofcourse care must be taken to discourage malicious complaints with no factual basis.

It is the responsibility of government to put in place a legislative and implementation framework which enables monitoring by civil society. On its own part, civil society must use its collective platform to provide voice for the most vulnerable whistle-blowers and also through advocacy and escalation protect the disclosing persons.

Protecting Whistle-blowers

Whistleblowing has been defined as the report by an employee or former employee of illegal, fraudulent or unethical activities by an employer.  As an employee and former employee, whistleblowers have insider knowledge and provide “tips”  which is important for the detection and prevention of fraud and corruption.  According to the Association of Fraud Examiners in its Report to the Nations on Occupational Fraud and Abuse: 2016 Global Fraud Study, “As in previous years, tips were the most common detection method by a wide margin, accounting for 39.1% of cases”.  

The crucial role that whistleblowers play has not been widely recognized.  In some jurisdictions, whistleblowers are regarded as “snitches”, “long –throat’ and are being called derogatory names.  In order to have robust protection for whistleblowers, their crucial role must be fully acknowledged, recognized and embraced.

It is the primary duty of governments to enact laws for the protection of whistleblowers, including on non-retaliation.  The enactment of laws is however not enough; there must be full implementation of the laws. 

CSOs have a role to play in terms of advocacy, dissemination of information, research, etc., on the important role of whistleblowers as well as addressing the cultural aspects of not telling on each other.  

The private sector also has a role to play in the protection of whistleblowers by having in place strong policies and practices, including incentives. 


Dr. Brian Martin at the U of Wollongong in Australia is one of the world's leading scholar/activists in two realms - whistleblowing, and nonviolent resistance. He has developed a practical handbook (now updated) for whistleblowers and those in civil society and other realms who want to support and protect them.

From the website: "Whistleblowing: A Practical Guide tells how to assess your options, prepare for action, use low-profile operations, negotiate official channels, leak, build support and survive the experience. It is filled with sample cases that show what can happen when you make incorrect assumptions or fall into common traps. The advice in this guidebook is based on the author's contact with hundreds of whistleblowers and dissidents, plus consultation with others experienced in the area. Although there are no guarantees of success, Whistleblowing: A Practical Guide can improve your odds of making a difference. Even if you never expect to challenge the system yourself, it will give you valuable insight into the dynamics of individual struggles and what is happening to others. Brian Martin has been involved with issues of dissent and whistleblowing for over 30 years and has extensive experience with social movements. He is active in Whistleblowers Australia. Professor Martin has a PhD in theoretical physics and now works as a social scientist at the University of Wollongong. He is the author of a dozen books and hundreds of articles in diverse fields including dissent, nonviolent action, scientific controversies, strategies for social movements, democracy and information issues."

Protecting Whistleblowers as you work with them.

Thanks for the content already shared. In addition to conduction efforts to educate people on the need to protect whistleblowers and avenues for whistleblowing, CSOs can learn a lot about how to work with whistleblowers in ways that help protect their safety and security.

We shared some of our experience on this front in a blog recently about our work with AfriLeaks to provide tools to protect whistleblowers. I'm reposting some of that content below. 

"Global Witness gets some of its most valuable information from leakers and whistleblowers. This forms one of the building blocks of our efforts to expose corruption and organised crime, and advocacy to change the system.

That gives us a responsibility to protect our sources and we’ll do whatever it takes to protect confidentiality. But with governments and who knows else snooping on phones and emails, how do you leak securely? Not everyone has the knowhow to use the email encryption and online anonymity tools that helped Edward Snowden evade the NSA. Research cited in The Guardian shows that in South Africa, corporate crime identified by whistleblowing more than halved between 2007 and 2013, suggesting potential leakers may be deterred by the fear of detection.

That’s where afriLeaks comes in. A partnership between the Africa Network of Centers for Investigative Journalism (ANCIR) and Italy’s Hermes Center for Transparency and Digital Human Rights, afriLeaks aims to provide a secure channel to connect whistleblowers with investigative journalists.

Unlike Wikileaks, afriLeaks won’t post information online. Instead it will act only as a conduit, using inbuilt encryption to put leakers in touch with a range of organisations, including Global Witness. That way, whistleblowers have a better chance of transferring information confidentially and keep their location secret."

For more information about the these tools, please read more at the following link:

To be sure, techniques and technology are no substitute for a political and cultural climate that protects whistleblowers.  But, individuals and civil society organizations will often be operating in conditions where such protections are lacking, so it's helpful to know there are tools out there to help level the playing field for the courageous individuals risking so much to speak out.


I am glad to see the issue of

I am glad to see the issue of protecting whistleblowers - and their crucial role to transparency and uncovering corruption - been given a dedicated space for discussion. In my experience both at Transparency International and at the Open Contracting Partnership it indeed deserves this important space in fighting corruption. Unfortunately, given some high-profile cases, blowing the whistle tends to come along with too much controversy despite providing crucial information (Ms Olajabi has highlighted this) and background especially in corruption and fraud cases, but also with regards to opening up closed information (Just found this quite interesting - albeit very US focused list on Wikipedia which puts in focus how history is judging many of them). The latter is crucial in an increasingly digital world. 

Mark has already highlighted afriLeaks and the series of technology based platforms facilitating responsible release of information. The handling of the PanamaPapers has been another recent example how to manage and process the release of huge amounts of information. Protection of these sources is fundamental, protection of journalism and its sources.

But when it comes to petty corruption, Transparency International's Adocacy and Legal Advice Centres have provided citizens a channel to report on corruption in the public sector and use this data to advocate for change in the system, as well as identifying where it is broken. 

The value of the whistleblower is clear, however, there is still a long way to go to find better and safer to share information. As whistleblowers go against entrenched networks within their organisation, they are always a threat.

I think there are a couple of ways forward:

  • Organizations that strive for integrity and put transparency on their banner need to lead by taking this responsibility seriously. Sanction mechanisms must have teeth. Too often, these cases run dry and the whistleblower is left hanging with no where to go. 
  • Information should be open by default, reducing the need to disclose information that should be public anyways (for example as is the case with most of the data on government contracting and as has been implemented by Slovakia where a contract is not legal until it is published online). Technology can help, but should not be seen as the main vehicle (disclosure for disclosure purpose)
  • A discussion of appropriate legal protections for the disclosure of government/business information in the public interest 

This will not be easy. But if we are serious about fighting corruption, this needs to be addressed.  

Making repression backfire

Dr. Brian Martin, highlighted in the previous post, has also studied suppression of dissent, efforts to silence whistle-blowers, and repression against nonviolent movements and campaign. He has documented how this can actually "backfire" on the perpetrators. He says that backfire happens when an attack or reprisal recoils against the perpetrators and creates more support for or attention to whatever/whoever is attacked.  In the context of our online conversation, this could be whistleblowers and civic initiatives and citizens targeting public sector corruption. Through his extensive research, he noticed a pattern on the part of the perpetrators and he developed a model to outline the steps they take to prevent backfire and strategic steps civil society can take to maximize backfire. It's a practical model based on real cases that is useful to think about how to protect and support whistleblowers as well as honest government officials, reformers, integrity champions and civic actors. For a guide to activating backfire, click here.

Here is an excerpt from Dr. Martin's Backfire Model:

Backfire: an attack can be said to backfire when it creates more support for or attention to whatever is attacked. Any injustice or norm violation can backfire on the perpetrator.Backfire can be apparent in adverse public opinion or greater activity by opponents.Even when a perpetrator seems to get away with an injustice, it can becounterproductive in the long term.Most injustices by powerful groups do not backfire, because they are able to reduce outrage.

The following table outlines a set of predictable methods corruptors use to avoid or minimize negative consequences, public outrage and action. It also indicates the five corresponding methods for civic initiatives to increase outrage and activate backfire.

Corruptor methods to reduce outrage over the repression, injustice, impunity

People power methods to increase outrage over the repression, injustice, impunity

Cover up - the action

Reveal - expose the action (through information, images, credible accounts)

Devalue – the target (person, organization, group)

Redeem - validate the target

Reinterpret - what happened

Reframe - emphasize the injustice, counter reinterpretation of it

Use official channels - to give the appearance of justice

Mobilize - public concern

Intimidate or reward - the people involved

Resist and expose - intimidation (to subdue outrage) and rewards (benefits, incentives, bribes that make people less likely to express outrage)