Courage our network

How journalists should work with whistleblowers

The International Journalism Festival 2014 hosted a panel discussion titled Thanks Mr Snowden! The Scoop of the Century, with MI5 whistleblower and Courage Advisory Board member Annie Machon, Guardian journalist James Ball and Italian journalists Fabio Chiusi, Carolina Frediani and Omar Monestier. They discussed the journalistic process of working with sensitive documents and a high-risk source in the face of government pressures, the persecution that whistleblowers face and the role of Courage in protecting whistleblowers.

Annie Machon, who helped set up Courage, described the foundation’s inception as beginning with the need to protect Edward Snowden and future intelligence-related whistleblowers who are “automatically criminalised for exposing the crimes of others”. Machon described the “global support” that Courage aims to offer future whistleblowers, as well as the international whistleblower advocacy work of Courage.

Courage’s work is particularly valuable given the “war on whistleblowers” and the severe threats truthtellers face, Machon said, pointing to the fact that President Obama has attempted to apply the Espionage Act more times in his presidency than all previous presidents put together. Although the Espionage Act is a World War I law designed to punish spies, Obama has used it to persecute whistleblowers exposing government criminality and to deny their full and public legal defence. Machon suggests, “the only answer that our governments have to deter future whistleblowers is to crush them and for them to be seen to be crushed.”

However, Machon praised the resilience and courage of whistleblowers, adding, “we have seen whistleblower after whistleblower come out of the UK and the US over the last two decades despite the appalling experiences that each of their predecessors seems to go through.” Mr Snowden was “well aware of the risks he was taking”, she said, as he had witnessed the Espionage Act being used against NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake, CIA whistleblower John Kiriakou and military whistleblower Chelsea Manning. The whistleblowers exposed warrantless surveillance, illegal torture and war crimes, respectively, yet were themselves persecuted, with Kiriakou sentenced to thirty months in prison and Manning sentenced to thirty-five years in prison. This precedent highlights the extraordinary courage of Mr Snowden and prospective new whistleblowers. “There may be more whistleblowers in the pipeline,” Machon added.

'Thanks Mr Snowden' panel, International Journalism Festival 2014

‘Thanks Mr Snowden!’ panel, International Journalism Festival 2014

Indeed, Machon explained that one of the reasons for setting up Courage was to show potential future whistleblowers that it is possible to survive the process of whistleblowing, “even when you have the USA and the entire intelligence infrastructure of this entirely militarised country chasing you around the planet”.

Government pressure affects not only whistleblowers but the journalists they work with. James Ball, special projects editor at the Guardian who works on the Snowden documents, explained how publishing of the revelations had to be outsourced to the US to benefit from constitutional protections. “We had to battle some quite serious censorship,” Ball said. “The UK government was really putting on severe political pressure.” In addition, journalists had to work under “ridiculous precautions” during the Snowden publications due to the surveillance risks to themselves, the source and their documents. They worked in a controlled environment in a safe room with no external electronic devices allowed inside. Machon recounted her experience of blowing the whistle, when journalists saw her anti-surveillance methods as excessive: “they thought we were overly paranoid.” Of course, now, the Snowden files document the extraordinary surveillance capabilities that journalists and sources should rightly be cautious of.

Machon recommended that journalists working with whistleblowers “display immediately an awareness of the security measures you need to put in place to protect both yourself and your story, but also the whistleblower, to show that you’re serious about trying to ensure they will not be snatched and disappeared into a prison for the next thirty-five years.”

Ball concluded: “Our freedom of expression relies on our privacy. All of our data all of our communications now are online. There is no such thing as ‘digital rights’ – online rights are offline rights.”

Journalists who wish to learn how to protect themselves, their sources and their stories from surveillance can use the Centre for Investigative Journalism’s newly released free handbook, Information Security for Journalists.