Whistleblowers and journalism are essential for democracy

SPJ FOI Chair gives a preview of “The Whistleblower Project: A collaboration between the Society of Professional Journalists and the Government Accountability Project”

Ever since the Trump administration took office last year, reporters from The New York Times, The Washington Post, Politico and many other news organizations have been reporting on the inner workings of the federal government. Citing anonymous and named government sources, they report on political turmoil within the White House, new policy decisions, executive orders, possible civil rights violations, scientific censorship and classified information surrounding Russia’s influence over the 2016 election.

Journalists have a long history of working with their sources to reveal essential public information and informing the citizenry. A free press is one of the cornerstones of American democracy, after all. But when government officials attack reporters or their sources and try to control the exposure of the truth, power is taken away from the citizens and that pillar of democracy crumbles.

In August, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the Department of Justice’s efforts to crack down on intelligence officers who reveal classified information to the public and the media organizations that report it. This included the possibility of implementing new subpoena powers, forcing journalists to give up their sources or risk facing jail time.

“We are taking a stand. This culture of leaking must stop,” Sessions said. “I have this warning for would-be leakers: Don’t do it.”

Perhaps the policy to crack down on leakers and whistleblowers came from his boss, President Donald Trump, who has a history of raging on Twitter against government “leakers” who paint him and his administration in an unflattering light. Or perhaps it’s a continuance of the previous administration led by former President Barack Obama, which arrested eight of the 13 people who have ever been prosecuted for leaking secrets under the Espionage Act, according to The Washington Post.

There is a difference between whistleblowers and leakers — two terms that are often used interchangeably as a way of discrediting the source of potentially-damning information. Leakers release information about the inner workings of the government agency or corporation they work for, often for political gain, to curry favor, or to test policies; Whistleblowers are workers who release information that shows serious wrongdoing, mismanagement, waste or other abuses of public trust.

Both are essential for a democracy with an informed citizenry.

While whistleblowers are, in most cases, protected by law from retaliation, they are often risking their lives and careers by releasing such information. Blowing the whistle takes courage and conviction and is one of the purest examples of putting your country before yourself.

That’s why the Society of Professional Journalists and the Government Accountability Project have teamed up with several other whistleblowing and media organizations to inform journalists on how they can safely work with whistleblowers, and have created a comprehensive case for why those brave workers who risk everything should be praised and better protected.

Next week, SPJ and GAP are launching “The Whistleblower Project,” where people can read and listen to stories of whistleblowers who have helped shed light on corruption, government waste and corruption. People will also be able to learn about the reporters who worked with them and how these essential public servants are currently protected by a patchwork of laws, but ultimately are still vulnerable to reprisal.

The goal of The Whistleblower Project is to spread awareness and ensure that whistleblowers and the journalists who work with them are protected and supported.

Defending the First Amendment and promoting open government are more crucial now than ever. Join SPJ's fight for the public’s right to know — either as an SPJ Supporter or a professional, student or retired journalist.

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