With whistleblowing at the center of the world stage like never before, WIN co-organized a conference that brought together those professional communities whose work is central not only to whistleblowing but to the fate of whistleblowers themselves: lawyers, journalists, and technologists. WIN partnered with Network Democracy, Free Press Unlimited, Netherlands Whistleblower Advice Centre, and the Hermes Centre for Transparency and Human Rights for the first-ever International Whistleblowers Conference on June 18, 2014 in Amsterdam.
The program offered a unique format that blended the international and Dutch national perspectives on whistleblowing presented through the prism of lawyers, journalists, and technologists. Significantly, the voices of whistleblowers were featured throughout the workshops and plenary sessions, bringing their indispensible take on the importance of public interest whistleblowing. In addition, prominent civil society organizations like WIN contributed their view on whistleblowing, democratic accountability, and what CSOs can offer by way of whistleblower protection.
With the overarching theme being how the three sectors can work separately and together to enhance whistleblower protection, the conference’s most stimulating discussions were those that took a closer look at the evolving phenomenon of whistleblowing, the public’s response to it, and its political and cultural impact. MI-5 whistleblower Annie Machon, in her opening keynote address, reminded the 200+ attendees of the risks whistleblowers continue to take as the “regulators of last resort” in an era largely lacking public- and private-sector accountability. She and plenary speaker Fabio Pietrosanti of Globaleaks recognized the empowering potential of technology to “transform information into action,” and acknowledged its limitations in terms of whistleblower protection.
WIN’s Executive Director Anna Myers perfectly framed the conference’s context and content when discussing the “new tools and new challenges” facing the whistleblower protection community. WIN’s work methodology is designed to leverage those tools and meet the new challenges by centralizing the role of national CSOs in a framework of mutual support. The Network provides assistance that the organizations themselves define as appropriate in the context in which they work to support whistleblowers. In turn, those entities’ specific regional and technical knowledge becomes part of the Network’s growing area of expertise that is shared internationally.
As Ms. Myers observed, “whistleblowers show where accountability mechanisms are failing.” One thing is clear in this age of “globalization” — whether it is global finance and its attendant worldwide financial meltdown, transnational resource production and the far-flung political instability created in its wake, or internationally-linked mass surveillance –there are no effective international accountability mechanisms to protect the public. Organizations like WIN, as well as the communities of journalists, lawyers and technologists who work with and for whistleblowers, can begin to fill this gap in a strategic and effective way.
The commonalities and differences within and among the three sectors that were the conference’s focus produced much of the day’s lively debate and discussion. For example, the international journalism workshop highlighted the difference between traditional journalism’s approach to working with whistleblowers and that of advocacy journalism, which takes a more active role in the whistleblowing process. Vladimir Radomirović, editor-in-chief of the Serbian investigative reporting website Pištaljka, noted this in the workshop when he explained how his organization filed a corruption complaint against the Serbian defense minister, an act that other journalists considered inappropriate even though it resulted in criminal charges against the minister.
That this first-ever gathering of this type not be the last was a sentiment expressed by many at the end of the day. As Radomirović observed, “We need more conferences like this in other European countries. We are trying our best to do one in Serbia.”