This week’s reading material covered an important (and extremely relevant) topic: whistleblowers, leakers, and more specifically––the differences between them.
While both whistleblowers and leakers are similarly motivated to hold institutions accountable for their actions, the way they’re portrayed throughout media and treated by society, varies unfairly.
What separates a whistleblower from a leaker?
According to an article on whistleblower.org, whistleblowers are non-intelligence federal employees who reveal information that proves an abuse of power to the greater public. Leakers on the other hand, can be anonymous sources who bring forward “sensitive and sometimes classified information about the inner-workings of the government agency or corporation they work for.”
How are they protected?
The protections for leakers and whistleblowers are infamously unreliable. The Whistleblower Protection Act (WPA) denies “certain federal employees” the right to “take or fail to take, or threaten to take or fail to take; any personnel action against” someone who lawfully discloses shady information. In 2012, Congress passed an even more specific Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act (WPEA) that gives examples of company violations and steps one should take to bring forth such information.
Ultimately, it’s a gutsy move for anyone to disclose sensitive information because they’re seldom guaranteed legal protection from repercussions like being fired or demoted. Plus there’s a constant risk of jail time, which under the Espionage Act, is a major possibility to consider.
Look at Daniel Ellsberg for example. Ellsberg is now known as perhaps the most famous whistleblower in the United States for his work revealing the Pentagon Papers in and falsified information on the Vietnam War in 1971. But he almost went to prison for it and just barely escaped an Espionage Act conviction because the trial was dismissed.
How are they portrayed?
One of the biggest issues with our view of leakers v. whistleblowers, stems from the way we refer to them. The two labels are often used interchangeably when they shouldn’t be. News outlets are notorious for putting out risqué headlines that call whistleblowers leakers and leakers, whistleblowers. This kind of misbranding is “designed to delegitimize both the source and the information […] It takes away their moral high ground,” said Dana Gold of the Government Accountability Project.
More recently, we’re seeing more and more mislabeling with President Trump’s impeachment process. Last week for instance, Trump called California Representative, Adam Schiff “the biggest leaker in Washington,” for his role in leading the impeachment inquiry started by the Ukrainian whistleblower. Trump’s basically using this to his advantage because it makes the information sound untrue and in-turn makes him look innocent.
At the end of the day, whistleblowers and leakers are brave individuals and should be treated as such. We should be encouraging and celebrating those who commit to shedding a light on wrongdoings instead of prosecuting them. In order to make that happen, we need to break down the disloyal stigma that both leakers and whistleblowers face through improving more concrete whistleblower protection.