The Council of Europe’s Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights held the second of two public hearings on mass surveillance and strengthening whistleblower protection on June 24th. At both hearings Edward Snowden gave evidence by video link and in the second hearing, Anna Myers, the Expert Coordinator of the Whistleblowing International Network, also gave a statement.
Both witnesses pointed out that information declared pertinent to national security is typically excluded from whistleblower protections and right to information laws – both vital to ensuring proper democratic accountability. The impact of this carve-out is only just being fully understood in the US and European context but is not new to many other parts of the world where “national security” is used as the blunt instrument to silence dissent and any form of public interest whistleblowing from the outset.
In this regard, the Tshwane Principles on National Security and Right to Information (formulated by 22 organizations and over 500 experts from more than 70 countries), which provides for a public interest defense, were timely when they were published last year. A public interest defense – which a whistleblower can claim on the basis that the information disclosed was improperly classified, relates to illegal activity, or where the public interest in its disclosure outweighs the interest in keeping it secret – is clearly vital where an unauthorized release of classified information or official secrets is automatically a crime. Moreover, such a defense is an important principle at the heart of whistleblower protection generally. It represents another perspective on free speech that is fundamental to effective whistleblower protection.
Note: A similar version of this post is on the Government Accountability Project’s website – GAP is a founding member of WIN – see http://www.whistleblower.org.