Wednesday, 31 July 2013

The Culture of Whistleblowing

Baba Jukwa of Zimbabwe exposes corruption.  He remains hidden behind this cartoon symbol.  The posts on his Facebook page about government officials have put a high price for the discovery of his identity ahead of the 2013 elections on July 31st.

In a recent interview for ICT Africa, Dr. Jabulani Dhliwayo explained that in Zimbabwe, as well as other countries in Africa with similarly high levels of corruption, the risk to whistleblowers is extreme and the corruption so deep, so pervasive that they have no chance to pursue justice though the systems and institutions of government. A mask, a pseudonym, a means of remaining anonymous and outside the system are essential.  The interviewer questioned whether the citizens could trust the reports from a source who would not reveal themselves and did not work within a system which could verify reports.  Dr. Dhliwayo replied, this is the best they can hope for right now.

Zimbabwe is frequently mentioned in the same breath with Cuba and Belarus as one of the countries which have bought surveillance technology from China. (Literally the same source is always quoted, which says 'suspected to have' and gives no more specifics which I find suspicious and frustrating... so this suggests a side project.)  Anyway, while this firewall and tracking software is meant to limit and finally root out actors like Baba Jukwa, Dr. Dhliwayo explains that the skills of the security services are not as advanced as the software they're tasked to monitor.  (Small sigh of relief for activists across Zimbabwe.)

Current cases in the U.S. of Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning highlight the contrast of overtly engaging with the system vs. Baba Jukwa's strategy of anonymity, particularly with respect to the emphasis on the character of the individuals over the content of the material they sought to bring to public attention.  Does inventing a two-dimensional cartoon keep the focus on the political message and limit character assassination to the obvious speculation on identity or judgement about revealing identity... all arguably less reality tv show than when there is a real individual with family, friends, neighbors, dentists, teachers, and baristas to dig dirt on? 

Perhaps this is too simplistic or obvious.  The U.S. has a judicial system in which to bring perpetrators to justice and there are ways, as Snowden or Assange are demonstrating, to take advantage of international legal systems to remain unharmed as a whistleblower.  Both of these avenues would not be available in many countries.

This is not the only example of using a mask to create a sort of shield from which to attack authority figures. 

La Comay, a five-foot puppet (or a man in a flamboyant costume topped off with a foam head) is another example of disguising the identity of a person pursuing sensitive topics.  While the actor who used this vehicle in Puerto Rico was not anonymous, by adopting such an over-the-top character whose comic and salacious style was far from formal journalism, he had more latitude on serious topics and could even book tough interview guests.  (no longer broadcasting)

And how does the mask strategy appear (or disappear) across cultures when using software platforms where crowds can report corruption or crimes?  Some are designed for reports to be made anonymously and to function within or as auxiliary to the justice system, but there are other crowd-created projects which have sprung up in different cultures which approach anonymity differently.  Vigilante or sunlight, they are often based on social media such as Facebook or Twitter.  These efforts have been criticized for lack of verification or worse such as in Mexico where some individuals have been tried as terrorists for inciting violence based on rumors they spread through Twitter.  The individuals were partially veiled, and then revealed.  Much of the reporting of violent drug related crime is being spread in this manner, but the identities of the sources is, to some extent, hidden.  And this state of being in the shadows is not culturally problematic, in fact, it seems necessary because of the risks involved in reporting.  In contrast, in Canada after the 2011 Stanley Cup riots in Vancouver, citizens policed themselves via Facebook to 'name and shame' looters and other offenders (to the great frustration of the real police).  The need and desire to remain anonymous while pointing the finger was not a high a priority in Canada.  Neither, as it turns out, was verification. 

Is there a culture, a history, a tradition to how we cry foul?  And thinking about how the whistleblower must go about presenting evidence, (as I said some countries simply have a higher risk factor) how people expect whistleblowers to behave... is a mask permitted?  Is a mask even part of that tradition? vs. a more cowboy approach of riding out and putting a target on yourself?  Or is this a measure of the health of our institutions, our systems of justice? (I truly didn't intend to bring in the the Lone Ranger, but he was a cowboy with a mask back in the days when our justice system was still getting up and running... I'm going to propose this as a scale to Freedom House.)

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