Advocates for whistleblower protections, free expression, and government transparency celebrated Whistleblower Appreciation Day on July 27, by Standing With Reality. We delivered 16,000 signatures to the Department of Justice demanding that the charges against Reality Winner be dropped (you can still add your name, see below).
As she prepared to hand the petitions to DOJ officials, Sue Udry, Director of Defending Rights & Dissent noted, “whistleblowers are essential to our democracy. Not only do we rely on them to alert us to fraud, abuse, waste, and worse, inside our government and corporations, but whistleblowers are often the canaries in the coalmine alerting us to attacks on the right to dissent that weaken democracy. This administration’s war on accountability, transparency, dissent, and the truth is embodied in the overzealous prosecution of Reality Winner.”
Ms. Winner was arrested on June 5th and charged under the Espionage Act, a 100-year-old statute purportedly designed for spies and saboteurs, for allegedly giving a document vital to the public’s understanding of potential Russian interference in U.S. election systems to a news organization.
“The Espionage Act is an arcane law meant for spies, not whistleblowers,” said Jesslyn Radack, Director, Whistleblower & Source Protection Program (WHISPeR) at ExposeFacts. “The Trump administration has made no secret of its disdain for truth-tellers, and the Espionage Act charges against Reality Winner demonstrate a willingness to punish anyone accused of informing the public of things the government doesn’t want them to know. The Espionage Act has no public interest defense. Using the constitutionally-questionable law against Reality Winner for allegedly providing documents to the media sends a chilling message to future whistleblowers, is a threat to the free press, and undermines a fundamental principle of our democracy: an informed public.”
Petition signers believe the charge against Winner is grossly disproportionate to her alleged offense, and is designed to create a chilling effect on investigative journalism by dissuading sources from sharing information that is critical to the public interest. “Anyone who cares about a free press should be concerned about her case,” Rainey Reitman, co-founder of the Stand with Reality campaign observed.
Jeff Landale, privacy and surveillance researcher at Penn State University’s X-Lab highlighted the unequal application of the law, “Winner’s case is another example of draconian punishments being used against low-ranking public interest whistleblowers,” he said. “While high-ranking officials who leak for personal gain, like former CIA Director David Petraeus, are protected.”
Whistleblower Appreciation Day is promoted each year on July 30 by Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) who notes that “When our Founding Fathers created a government accountable to the people, they specifically included tools, like checks and balances, to prevent government from running amok. In that same spirit, they wanted government employees to be the people’s eyes and ears in government, and to speak out when they encounter problems or opportunities for improvement. So on July 30, 1778, the Continental Congress adopted a resolution empowering government whistleblowers. It said that government whistleblowing was not only encouraged; it was a duty for Americans.”
David Swanson, Campaign Coordinator for RootsAction.org, spoke to the broader concern of government secrecy as a tool to protect the status quo. “Government secrecy is driven by an unnecessary, counterproductive, and self-fulfilling insistence on having enemies. The habit of secrecy is then stretched to encompass virtually anything, and people are taught to demand not to know what their government is doing. Whistleblower Appreciation Day is not only an exercise in gratitude, but also a re-ordering of our priorities. We must remind ourselves that ignorance is not strength, and that representative government is not possible without an informed public.”