Wednesday June 19, 2024

Protecting the whistle-blower

By Adnan Randhawa
April 10, 2016

We often hear that good people do exist in the world, and it’s because of them that the world is functional. It’s a common observation that in practical life we encounter many people who resort to all kinds of evil practices to make ends meet or to gratify their vanity, avarice and lust. Rarely do we find people who can sacrifice their own interests, even minor ones, in order to save others’ from a bigger loss or for the greater good of society.

Whistle-blowers can safely be categorised among such people. Millions of people get daily excess to information – relating to the wrongdoings and even outright crimes of powerful people, groups, organisations and states – which, if leaked to the public can trigger storms and usher in an environment of more transparency and accountability. But, they chose not to do so because many of them don’t feel like doing it and if some do, they are restrained by the assured and alarming personal destruction of losing their jobs or even their life, depending upon the circumstances. But, whistle-blowers are those good souls who make the choice of revealing information and bearing the cost.

One such whistle-blower has simply taken away the breath of hundreds of filthy rich but crooked notables all across the world by leaking the Panama documents. Nobody knows who that person is. Is he or she even alone? Is he safe or has he already been taken out? All that we know through the German newspaper that initially received the data from the said whistle-blower is that money was not his motive. He just wanted security.

Computers and the internet have made the job of whistle-blowers pretty easy. The first such hero of our time is Julian Assange who cannot be, strictly speaking, termed as a whistle-blower. But he made a marvellous contribution. Being a computer programmer, who formed a group to hack the systems of different organisations, Assange started using hacked information for the public good by leaking the wrongdoings along with analyses. Then he started providing third-party services through Wikileaks to whistle-blowers all over the world.

Many major leaks, some involving war crimes of even the powerful and feared Pentagon of the US, are to his credit. No wonder then that he is hiding for protection in Ecuador’s London Embassy, despite a majority verdict by a UN panel declaring him to have been “arbitrarily detained” by the UK. Next was Snowden, who revealed tonnes of information on illegal surveillance operations by the National Security Agency (NSA) of the United States. He is hiding in an unknown place in Russian since then. Both of them have played their parts in the biggest leak of history as well, ie the Panama Leaks.

Whistle-blowers, who usually happen to be employees of the originating organisations, are always in danger of falling into the hands of wrong third-party groups who, after getting information from whistle-blowers, will return it to the originating organisations by striking a deal, thus leaving the whistle-blowers at the disposal of their organisations, which may arrange very unfortunate fates for them. The Panama Leaks have been a landmark success story, not only because the huge amount of data made its way into the right hands, but also because the data was handled very professionally and with complete secrecy by some 400 investigative journalists of 80 countries for almost a year.

Another remarkable feature was that the data was not merely released but was meticulously analysed to expose the systematic breach, widely practiced by the world’s rich to hide black money. To analyse the Pakistan-related data, investigative journalist Umar Cheema was taken on board and had the reliable infrastructure and team of The News investigative-cell, headed by Ansar Abbasi, at his disposal. Umar Cheema and the team deserve the highest accolades for their professionalism and maintaining secrecy.

Hussain Nawaz’ two interviews about a month ago, which had all the traits of a pre-emptive strike, however, raised some eyebrows as to what extent he knew about the upcoming storm. Whether that was a natural reaction after he was questioned by the ICIJ on his Panama-based companies, or whether he had more knowledge of what was being investigated will remain a mystery. But, even assuming that he had more knowledge, it could not be enough to breach the secrecy of the whole investigation.

The Panama Leaks did trigger a storm all over the world, which has taken down one prime minister and one country head of Transparency International so far. Investigations have started in other countries, mainly for non-political figures. But here in Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif has refused to resign, despite his son’s confession that he owns all the secret companies. Instead, he is trying to hide behind a judicial commission, which in Pakistan has a history of being used as a tool to bury scandals instead of investigating them.

The Election Commission of Pakistan has taken a stand that can best be described as an insult to the institution. The Federal Board of Revenue is silent. The National Accountability Bureau is doing what it is best at: protecting instead of catching the big guns for corruption. The Federal Investigation Agency figures nowhere. The PPP is compromised itself, having many stains of corruption, and the PTI has become so enamoured by the charms of the third umpire that it will not come to play unless the match is fixed beforehand.

In a recent scandal of allegedly 10 billion worth of plots surrounding PFWA of Foreign Office, the whole focus appeared to be on punishing the whistle-blower instead of the wrongdoer. Can we progress or even survive with this kind of tolerance for mega-corruption? The least we can do is promote whistle-blowing culture in our institutions, campaign for strong legislation for whistle-blowers’ protection and build pressure for the accountability of those who are caught red-handed with billions of public funds.

The writer is a former diplomat and currently practises law.