Even if you succeed in stopping a single messenger, you will not stop the message
Journalists have paid the ultimate price of loss of liberty or life as a result of exposing the inconvenient truth in the public interest. This is particularly the case where the truth exposes governmental fraud, corruption or human rights abuses. In this article, I pay homage to all activist journalists by shining a light on their important work as whistleblowers and allies of whistleblowers.
Activist journalists as whistleblower’s allies
As a lawyer to whistleblowers, I litigated a case for a whistleblowing consultant urologist who was suspended after exposing patient safety concerns at his NHS Trust in 2009. We won the claim, but the legal costs borne by the whistleblower were significant.
I then represented two managers at a global telecoms giant who exposed an Enron-style financial scandal involving allegations of covering up a £1.5m fraud relating to questionable payments to consultants. This case settled for 6 figures during the course of the hearing but it ended the whistleblower’s careers.
I continued to advise, settle or litigate cases for whistleblowers against large public and private sector organisations. At the heart of each dispute was a whistleblower who had exposed health and safety issues, fraud or corruption in the public interest on a lonely and ruinous journey seeking wider accountability and redress for their harsh treatment. Briefing journalists and broadcast media brought the cases to the attention of the national public and gave the whistleblower’s some brief satisfaction.
The allyship between whistleblowers, journalists and lawyers has always been an important part of my practice. It has provided a swifter mechanism to reveal and hold wrongdoers to account when legal cases can take years to do so. Journalists ensure their sources are protected except (with increasing tendency) where the State uses the interests of national security as an overriding reason to reveal sources. Journalists are a crucial conduit safeguarding our democratic institutions, consumer rights and safety at a time when organisational secrecy is on the rise and traditional methods of transparency are at risk.
I was frequently approached by journalists to add a societal and legal context to stories they were investigating undercover; to cast a spotlight on abuses of human and workplace rights in cases where individuals had no means to provide evidence or were too vulnerable to whistleblow and seek redress. Journalists reach places lawyers fear or cannot tread.
BBC investigative journalist Guy Lynn exposed the scourge of unscrupulous landlords refusing to rent properties to Eastern Europeans in Lincolnshire and to Asian or Black tenants in London by going under cover as a tenant and surreptitiously recording his exchanges with various estate agents. I provided the legal knowledge of how this unlawful and immoral behaviour breached the UK’s Equality Act 2010. The Lincolnshire expose won an Amnesty International media award. Later, I worked with Guy on a BBC documentary to expose breaches of employment rights by a private company selling beauty products in shopping centres whose workers were being exploited by the failure to pay the minimum wage and forced to work up to 100 hours a week.
But, sometimes, in addition to receiving awards, journalists can be on the receiving end of serious retaliation, as the plight of the international journalists below illustrate.
Maria Ressa spent two decades as an investigative reporter and foreign correspondent in Manila and in the Jakarta bureau of CNN subsequently heading the news division of the Philippines biggest TV news channel, ABS-CBN. She is an influential author of books and articles on counter-terrorism to the extent that videotapes of her coverage were reportedly found in Osama bin Laden’s lair in Afghanistan.
In 2012, she and three fellow female journalists formed a digital only news agency – Rappler, which grew to become the fourth biggest news website in the Philippines with more than 100 journalists.
Rodrigo Duterte was elected President of the Philippines in 2016 at which point Rappler began to shine a spotlight on Duterte’s online ‘troll army’ who were alleged to have been pushing out fake news stories and manipulating the narrative around his Presidency. Rappler also began reporting critically on his extrajudicial killings, human rights violations and the rising death toll from his war on drugs.
The government of President Duterte had maintained a combative relationship with the media since coming to power in 2016. Duterte attacked journalists as ‘spies’ and warned that they could be targeted for assassination. Duterte alleged that Rappler was fully owned by the Americans and therefore in violation of the Filipino Constitution. Rappler was subsequently prosecuted for tax evasion by the Filipino government. The case is still ongoing. The officers and staff of Rappler have faced at least 11 government investigations and court cases.
In 2020, Maria Ressa was found guilty in a cyber libel case alleging links between a businessman and a top judge. The Filipino justice department allowed the case to proceed to trial by extending the liability for such cases from 1 year to 12 years. She faces up to 6 years in prison as a result of the libel conviction. It is being viewed as a major test case for press freedom in the Philippines. Ressa warned, ‘if we can’t hold power to account, we can’t do anything’.
In April 2021, Maria Ressa was awarded UNESCO’s Press Freedom prize for her “unerring fight for freedom of expression”. Her story is told in an illuminating reportage style documentary ‘A Thousand Cuts’.
Daphne Caruana Galizia
In 2020, European Parliament group GEU/NGL awarded its ‘Journalists, Whistleblowers and Defenders of the Right to Information’ awards to former US Army intelligence officer Chelsea Manning, a German investigative organisation Correctiv and Novartis whistleblowers. The awards underlined how essential it is for journalists to support each other in exposing the truth and for cross-border collaboration.
The GEU/NGL prize was established in honour of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia who revealed stories about political corruption, cronyism, bribery and money-laundering in Malta. She was villified by government officials, subject to libel litigation, death threats, and ultimately paid with her life. One of her exposes alleged that the Maltese Prime Minister‘s Chief of Staff had received kickbacks from an energy company and in the sale of Maltese passports to Russian nationals, providing them with a gateway to the EU and US for themselves and their capital. Daphne documented her corruption allegations in her articles and on her blog site, ‘Running Commentary’ from 2008 onwards.
On 16 October 2017, Daphne left her house in her car to run an errand; just a mile from her home a bomb went off under the driver’s seat and killed her. The alleged perpetrators are presently on trial.
In the wake of Daphne’s murder, a project called “Forbidden Stories” was established by the Freedom Voices Network, a non-profit organisation. The project is dedicated to continue the legacy work of journalists who have been threatened, incarcerated or murdered. Its’ message is that “even if you succeed in stopping a single messenger, you will not stop the message”.
The suppression of the right of freedom of expression is an affront to human dignity and undermines the value of our human rights, the rule of law and even democracy itself. This is why I am honoured to be involved as a Trustee of Parrhesia focussing on the research and development of stronger, more enforceable laws and accountable governance structures to improve the human rights of all whistleblowers and ensure the UK leads the way in whistleblower protection.