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The Government Accountability Project — one of the oldest and best whistleblower protection and advocacy organizations — has published Working with Whistleblowers: A Guide for Journalists. It’s broader than it sounds and full of serious advice for would-be whistleblowers or those trying to help them.
The Government Accountability Project or GAP is a non-profit, non-partisan public-interest group founded in 1977. Since then it has helped more than 6,000 whistleblowers expose wrongdoing to the public. GAP also actively promotes government and corporate accountability.
The group’s $3.1 million annual budget is met through tax-deductable gifts.
“The vast majority of the organization’s funding comes from a base of over 10,000 individual donors and foundations such as the CS Fund, the Open Society Foundations and Rockefeller Family Fund,” according to GAP’s website.
Additional support comes from legal fees, settlement awards, and services provided.
Back to Working with Whistleblowers. One section is “Advice for Whistleblowers on Best Practices.”
We asked GAP for permission to republish that part. They graciously said yes.
Here it is:
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You can help your source mitigate risks by alerting them to a few basic best practices they should consider when deciding to blow the whistle:
1. Before exposing themselves to risks, they should talk to a lawyer experienced in helping whistleblowers. Part of the reason is so they can make an informed choice about taking those risks. If an employee drops out in the middle after realizing the price of dissent, wrongdoers will be stronger off. It would have been better to remain silent all along. The other reason is to prevent whistleblowing accidents through frst learning the rules of the road.
2. They should consult their loved ones before taking the risk. To a significant degree, they will be sharing the consequences. If whistleblowers make the decision alone to take on the power structure, they may well end up alone. Loss of family is far worse than loss of job, but this is pain that whistleblowers may inflict upon themselves.
3. They should continue to work within their system as long as possible without incurring suspicion. It can backfire badly for a whistleblower to make aggressive internal allegations from a lonely perch of isolation. By contrast, without making charges whistleblowers can be the insider eyes and ears that allow journalists to fully develop a story. If whistleblowers raise issues internally in a non-threatening manner, they can learn and share with journalists the advance previews for cover-ups.
4. They should create a contemporaneous paper trail or diary of everything that happens, including when they raised complaints and issues, and whether they faced any retaliation.
5. They should keep such evidence in a safe place. Authorities usually are not limited in access to your workplace but it is far more difficult to search a home. Since agencies have subpoenaed, searched and ransacked homes, the best choice is to secure the evidence with their attorney, where it is shielded by the attorney-client privilege.
6. Without giving themselves away, they should test the waters and organize support for themselves among their colleagues if possible. This is necessary for quality control. For example, maybe the whistleblower had accurate information but drew the wrong conclusions due to tunnel vision, or there was a new development that resolves the concern. Further, it is necessary to test whether there is a sufficient solidarity base of supporting witnesses for the disclosure to have an impact. If the whistleblower is isolated, making allegations alone again could backfre by guaranteeing that those engaging in misconduct will weather the storm.
7. If there are legitimate liability concerns attached to blowing the whistle, coach them on how to secure and protect evidence without removing it. Tactics previously discussed such as taking cell phone pictures of subsequently “misfiled” records can secure documents that otherwise would be destroyed. This strategy can help prove the whistleblower’s claims while limiting vulnerability to charges of theft of records.
8. They should communicate with you through secure means, including using Signal, Whatsapp, SecureDrop, or snail mail with no return address.
9. Your source should not contact you during their work hours. They should not use work equipment either, including their office phones, computers, or even paper. Otherwise, they can be fred for engaging in personal business with the employer’s time and resources. Most employees do not even know about such risks.
10. They should turn off location tracking in their phone before taking any pictures of documents, and they should strip any metadata from documents before sending them. Journalists should work with professionals experienced in removing traceability. They should make sure several others possess the documents they provide to a reporter to minimize the disclosures being traced back to them immediately.
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Many thanks to GAP for allowing us to republish part of their guide.
The full publication — Working with Whistleblowers: A Guide for Journalists — from the Government Accountability Project is here (pdf).
Richard L. Cassin