Martin Luther King Jr. once said that “one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws”. In principle, this sounds pretty straight-forward. However in reality, the line between just and unjust is as blurry as it can possibly get. Thankfully, there are still a few people among us who know how to grow a pair in these situations. These people will risk their personal safety, their career, their reputation, their credibility, their wealth, their living standards, and will sometimes even put their own life on the line to defend our democratic values. These people are whistleblowers – the condemned heroes of modern societies.
In his final days as president, Barack Obama surprisingly announced that the prison sentence of Chelsea Manning, of one of the most prominent whistleblowers of all times, would be commuted. The former U.S. army intelligence analyst Bradley Manning (now Chelsea Manning) was charged for leaking classified documents to the internet platform WikiLeaks. Among others, these files included videos of U.S. military airstrikes in Iraq and Afghanistan that showed the deaths of thousands of civilians. Now, five years after his conviction and almost seven years after being arrested and held in prison Manning is said to finally be freed on May, 17th this year.
While this may sound like good news to most, it is not welcomed by all. Newly inaugurated president Donald Trump reacted to his predecessor’s decision with contempt, calling Manning an “ungrateful traitor” in one of his tweets. Well that’s just Trump, you may think. The same old Trump who continues to enrich the world with ‘alternative facts’. The same old Trump who thinks Mexicans are rapists and women are nasty, so why on earth would you care what he thinks about Chelsea Manning. But here’s the plot twist: Turns out, him and his odd gang of male, white, middle-aged minions are not the only ones. In fact, there is a significant number of people all over the world condemning Manning’s prison sentence reduction. In fact, there is an even larger number of people denunciating the act of whistleblowing. In fact, it was flawless Mr. Ex-President Obama himself who viciously waged this everlasting war on whistleblowers. According to the New York Times, Manning’s originally imposed 35-year sentence was “by far the longest punishment ever imposed in the United States for a leak conviction”. In comparison, the “average British murderer” only serves about 17 years in jail. Just something to think about.
So what are whistleblowers and why do American presidents hate them so much?
Transparency International describes a whistleblower as “any public or private sector employee or worker who discloses information about ‘wrongdoings”.
Aside from Chelsea Manning, famous whistleblowers include former FBI second-in-command Mark Felt (“Deep Throat”) who leaked the Watergate Scandal in collaboration with the Washington Post, former US military analyst Daniel Ellsberg who disclosed the Pentagon Papers, former FBI field agent Coleen Rowley who revealed several of the pre-9/11, nuclear whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu who leaked details of Israel’s nuclear weapons program, and of course notorious NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.
What do all of these people have in common? They have been criminalized, shunned, tried in court and most of them have been convicted to crimes. What they also have in common? They have actively tried to make this world a better place by standing up for our human rights when no one else did, by speaking the truth and going against their superiors when they were specifically prohibited to do so and by providing important information about issues that concern all of us. Awful, I know. Those ungrateful traitors.
Politicians generally attempt to justify the criminalization and persecution of whistleblowers by pointing at the potential “danger” leaked materials will cause regarding national security, especially in the age of terrorism. In my opinion that’s a rather complicated and misleading way of saying “we just don’t want you to know what we’re doing behind your backs”. Admittedly, there is a serious threat that a nation will face attacks or otherwise negative reactions from other countries when war crimes or crimes against humanity are made public by a whistleblower. But technically, you might want to consider that before committing the crime. Technically, you got nothing to fear if you got nothing to hide, right?!
We live in a time, where governments no longer seem to represent the people but instead abuse the power that is invested in them by the people to act as independent institutions following their own perpetual interests. As citizens of a state (or employees of a company), we largely rely on people in power-positions to make decisions on our behalf, such as between what is right and what is wrong, and what is just and what is unjust. Sometimes we conveniently forget that these moral concepts are just as blurry to them as they are to us, and that at times they use this blurriness to their advantage. And that’s why we should remember that, as citizens of a state, we rely on whistleblowers to disclose our representatives’ wrong choices. We rely on whistleblowers to fight corruption and protect democratic values. We rely on whistleblowers to challenge the laws that infringe on our rights to freedom of expression and information. In turn, we need to adequately protect them from harm and stop the stigmatization, because in reality, we all benefit from these ungrateful traitors in one way or another.