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Whistleblowers in Peril as Government Policies Shaft Press Freedoms

A report by the UN special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression called for greater protections for journalistic sources — particularly those that publicly or privately expose malfeasance.
Edward Snowden. (Photo by Christian Charisius/EPA)

In the United Nation's first wide-scale review of whistleblower protections worldwide, a special rapporteur appointed by the Secretary-General has cited governments and organizations, among them the UN itself, for failing to do enough to shield those who reveal secrets in the public interest.

The report, authored by David Kaye, UN special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, called for greater protections for journalistic sources, as well as for journalists themselves — particularly those that publicly or privately expose malfeasance. The report, citing the public's right to receive information from the media that is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, explicitly recommended that states revise and implement national laws "protecting the confidentiality of sources." Kaye presented the report to the General Assembly's Third Committee on Thursday.


Questions over the protections afforded to whistleblowers globally have grown in scope since former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden leaked details of the United States spy agency's massive surveillance program in 2013. Many countries responded with reforms, but Kaye says that while new and preexisting laws ostensibly offer safeguards, they fall well sort of being effective.

"On paper, governments are adopting these types of protections, but in practice they don't provide effective protection because of social and political pressure or because of gaps in those laws," Kaye told VICE News shortly before introducing his findings to the General Assembly.

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Several recent cases have caused alarm among activists who fear that national security concerns are encroaching on press freedoms. In Australia, a bill was introduced in June that would allow the country to revoke the citizenship of dual nations accused of certain offenses, and could potentially affect a whistleblower who accused the government of spying on East Timor. In the US, Jeffrey Sterling, a former CIA operative accused of leaking classified information to a reporter, was convicted entirely on the basis of metadata purporting to show his communications with the journalist, James Risen of the New York Times.

At an earlier panel, Kaye spoke alongside several experts and officials charged with ensuring media freedoms. One of the speakers was Julie Posetti, the Australian author of a forthcoming UNESCO report on protecting journalism in the digital era.


Previewing her findings, Posetti said that from 2007 to the middle of this year, nearly 70 percent of the 121 countries she reviewed had altered laws and policies on the protection of journalists and their sources.

"Most of those changes were negative," Posetti said. The legal frameworks to support the protection of journalism, she told panelists, "are under very significant strain, they are at risk of erosion, and compromise."

Also on the panel was Aicha Elbasri, one of the UN's best-known whistleblowers, who revealed endemic underreporting and failure to investigate human rights abuses at the organization's peacekeeping mission in Darfur (UNAMID).

Between 2006 and 2014, 403 "inquiries" were sent to the UN's ethics office. Kaye found that only 15 of those "were found to meet prima facie standards for retaliation," while four were "established as retaliatory cases."

"The low numbers, in a system of more than 40,000 employees, are likely to send a message to employees that the reporting system will not provide effective protection or redress," he wrote in the report.

Related: 'Snowden Treaty' Aims to Protect Privacy, Whistleblowers — and End Mass Surveillance

"Very few whistleblowers are actually lucky enough to go back to their employer's facility and speak about their experience," commented Elbasri, who quit the UN after being rebuffed when she raised concern internally. She eventually leaked reams of documents and communiques to Foreign Policy, which first reported the systemic failures at UNAMID.


Elbasri pointed to the recent case of Anders Kompass, a Swedish UN human rights official who leaked details of the sexual abuse of minors committed by French troops in the Central African Republic. Though UN peacekeepers were not involved in those alleged abuses — African Republic. Though UN peacekeepers were not involved in those alleged abuses — they have been accused of involvement in over a dozen separate sexual abuse cases in the country, however — the UN was heavily criticized for its handling of the report. The controversy forced Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to create a panel to review the case and others like it. A similar review was established after Elbasri's revelations, whose findings the former UNAMID spokesperson characterized as a "cover up of a cover up."

"What we are left with is systematic punishment of any UN whistleblowers who comes forward, especially publicly," Elbasri said. "I have no reason to believe in the protection of the whistleblowers at the UN."

"The core problem in the UN system is a lack of transparency and a lack of certainty," said Kaye.

The panel, which included representatives from the Organization of American States and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, cited growing trends in digital surveillance, which has resulted in what several termed a "chilling effect" on communications between journalists and their sources.

"Journalists have to train their sources," said Posetti. "When you are strategizing a major investigative story now you need to allow a significant pool of money to deal with legal advice."


But even if both sources and the media are careful, they may still be at risk of what Kaye termed "unintended self-disclosure" due to the vacuuming up of digital communications by governments around the world.

"The ubiquitous use of digital electronics, alongside government capacity to access the data and footprints that all such devices leave behind, has presented serious challenges to confidentiality and anonymity of sources and whistleblowers," Kaye wrote, alluding to cases like that of Sterling, the former CIA operative, that involved the use of metadata.

Related: The Bush Administration Whistleblower Who Says the US Has Not Closed the Door on Torture

Anna Myers, director of the International Whistleblowers Network, said that activists, journalists, and concerned citizens have only begun "connecting the dots," linking their similar domestic limitations. She added that the public has grown accustomed to whistleblowers like Snowden going public because it is so hard to raise issues internally — either within governments, companies, or organizations like the UN. But panelists agreed that whistleblowing shouldn't necessarily mean giving up one's career, as Snowden did.

Kaye noted in his report that governments have a propensity for "over-classification" of information, and must do a better job of making available all materials in cases where "the public interest in disclosure outweighs the risk."

But he added that even a "strong formal framework on the right to information will not overcome an official culture of secrecy and disrespect for the rule of law."

Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford