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Reinstatement and redemption: whistleblowers’ path to acceptance

If anyone could be expected to have a smile on their face, it should not have been John Kiriakou (pictured above).

But there he was, enjoying every moment of his party. Dressed in orange jumpsuits and other prisoner garb, about 100 friends and supporters celebrated with Kiriakou at the Hay-Adams Hotel, within sight of the White House in Washington. Together, they sang the protest song “Have You Been to Jail for Justice?”.

Today, Kiriakou is prisoner #79637-083 at the Federal Correctional Institution in Loretto, Pennsylvania. On 28 February he left behind his wife and five children to begin a 22-30 month prison term.

His crime? Telling the world about the repeated waterboarding of prisoners by the US government.

He wasn’t convicted of ordering the torture of prisoners in US custody. Or supervising it. Or carrying it out. The 48-year-old former Central Intelligence Agency analyst was sent to prison for revealing the torture. Namely, he told a national television audience in 2007 about the repeated waterboarding of a terrorism suspect. Kiriakou was charged with being a spy.

Those at the party a week before Kiriakou reported to prison described him as unbowed and almost content. “I’m proud of my career,” he said. “I wear my conviction as a badge of honor.”

A new generation of whistleblowers

John Kiriakou is among the new generation of whistleblowers whose heroism, though personally costly, did not completely destroy their lives. In fact, it is slowly but surely becoming more commonplace for whistleblowers to regain what they have lost.

In the past authorities would have put someone like Kiriakou in a federal prison and thrown away the key. But times have changed, evidenced by the fact Kiriakou got two years in minimum security, and he can maintain online contact with his family. Whistleblowing is becoming more acceptable.

Countries that recently improved whistleblower protections

  • US, 2012: significantly strengthened legal protections for federal government whistleblowers
  • South Korea, 2011: passed designated whistleblower law to protect public- and private-sector employees
  • Luxembourg, 2011: reformed labour and criminal laws to protect public- and private-sector whistleblowers
  • Jamaica, 2011: passed designated whistleblower law to protect public- and private-sector employees
  • Slovenia, 2010: passed an anti-corruption law that includes legal protections for public- and private-sector whistleblowers
  • Peru, 2010: passed designated whistleblower law to protect public-sector employees

Whistleblower advocates gather in Berlin

On Monday, 11 March, Transparency International will bring together about 100 whistleblower advocates, investigative journalists and public interest activists for the conference, “Whistleblowing for Change.”

Together in one room for the first time, veteran advocates and experts from all regions will share their ongoing initiatives to strengthen whistleblower protections, while also creating a meaningful strategy for harnessing international cooperation to provide citizens everywhere with safe alternatives to silence. From Peru to Lebanon, from Canada to South Africa, from India to Morocco, from Russia to Yemen – the event stands to be the most internationally diverse whistleblower event ever held.

Winds of change favour whistleblowers

Armoured truck image

The winds of change increasingly favour whistleblowers. Take Franz Gayl. A science and technology officer with the US Marine Corps, Gayl blew the whistle on inadequate military vehicles in Iraq that were resulting in the death and maiming of troops from roadside bombs. After attempting to raise the issue within the military, he went public in 2007. He was placed on administrative leave and his security clearance was suspended. Soon after the case broke in the media, the Marine Corps began providing soldiers with bomb-resistant vehicles. Gayl was reinstated in 2011 and became a national hero whose actions were credited with savings hundreds of lives.

End results such as this would have been unthinkable even as recently as 20 years ago. The whistleblower movement hasn’t reached the promised land. Obviously, many are still harassed, fired, ostracised, attacked, thrown in psychiatric hospitals or even killed. But growing public dissatisfaction with the performance of governments, corporations and other institutions has lifted whistleblowing from the fringes into the ever-widening centre of public engagement.

Our ultimate goal is to help ensure that whistleblowers like John Kiriakou and Franz Gayl – who place the public interest over their private needs – will no longer be put in situations that require their reinstatement or redemption.

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