5 tips for journalists working with whistleblowers

Mar 4, 2020 in Investigative Journalism

Whistleblowers are a key part of the journalism ecosystem, providing vital tips for journalists. These individuals are insiders who have access to information on corruption or wrongdoing that they believe is of the public interest, and subsequently “blow the whistle” on these activities. 

Working with whistleblowers, however, requires a great amount of caution. Journalists can use the following tips to guide and inform their work:

(1) Know the laws

The first step to working with whistleblowers is knowing the relevant protection laws and policies. Nigeria, for instance, has some national laws on whistleblowing, including the Whistleblower Protection Bill, which was passed in 2017, but has yet to be signed into law. The bill seeks to ensure that persons who make disclosures and persons who suffer reprisals in relation to such disclosures are protected under the law. Nigeria also launched the Whistleblower Policy in 2016, which calls for compensation for citizens who provided tips on corruption-related offenses with a payment of 2.5-5% of the amount recovered. 

Many other countries have their own laws for whistleblowers. It is the duty of the journalist to learn about these laws and how they work, in order to be prepared to work with these sources. For instance, the U.S. has the False Claims Act and the Dodd-Frank Act, which include extensive legal frameworks on whistleblower protection.

These laws can be complicated, and if you ever experience difficulty understanding what they mean, speaking with a legal expert can be of great help. Transparency International has a number of Advocacy and Legal Advice Centers located in more than 50 countries around the world to provide support for citizens interested in reporting corruption, but they can also act as a resource for journalists dealing with similar challenges. 

[Read more: Nigerian newsrooms are using these strategies to combat media repression]

(2) Respect anonymity

Exposing internal wrongdoing is dangerous, and whistleblowers are at risk of attack or persecution for their decision. Therefore, when a whistleblower requests to remain anonymous, it is your duty as a journalist to protect them. If you do not, it puts the individual at risk, and you stand a chance of losing integrity and trust. This may, of course, affect future relationships and engagements with whistleblowers of any kind. 

In a 2016 report, the Information Law and Policy Centre at the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies at the University of London issued a report titled “Protecting Sources and Whistleblowers in a Digital Age,” which recommends that journalists and news organizations should:

  • Strengthen policies on secure technology, caring for sources and protection.
  • Review how they engage with sources that wish to remain anonymous.
  • Undertake sufficient training on secure protection.

(3) Know the risks involved

Whistleblowers face a lot of risks, especially from those who feel they have been exposed for engaging in illegal activities as a result of a whistleblower’s testimony. In Nigeria, the Coalition for Whistleblowers Protection and Press Freedom (CWPPF) — a coalition of 13 civil society organizations and six investigative newsrooms — is leading the campaign for the protection of whistleblowers in the country.

“The aim is to create a positive impact on the Nigerian media landscape, by advocating for whistleblower protection and press and internet freedom in Nigeria,’’ said Stephanie Adams of the CWPPF. “The establishment of the coalition also comes at a time when the whistleblower protection policy has been a topic of discussion in the Nigerian legal sphere.”

CWPPF runs Leaks.ng, a platform launched in 2018 that allows whistleblowers to share confidential information while protecting their identities through the use of digital technologies.

“This tool allows people to send information of public interest to media outlets and civil society organizations through secure technologies that protect the identity of the source,” Adams said. “The system has been designed for the public to share these materials with 100% anonymity using transparency and civil participation. It aims to build a fairer and more democratic society.”

If you ever find yourself working with a source who feels endangered, despite all your best efforts to hide their identity, reach out to an organization like these in your country who can help.

[Read more: What every journalist should know about anonymous sources]

(4) Verify information received

A whistleblower gives you valuable information, but what do you do with it next? Journalists have a critical responsibility to verify the information and tips. Journalists should consider the motive of the whistleblower, and more importantly, verify the information with other credible sources at the reporter’s disposal. There is no excuse for failing in this regard, as the consequences for doing so can be huge. 

“I believe not all whistleblowers are out there with the desire to do the right thing,” Michael Agu, a media expert says. “You need to double-check or verify their claims with other reliable sources.”

The Government Accountability Project, a leading U.S. whistleblower protection non-profit, released a guide in 2019 that says, “The power of whistleblowers to hold institutions and leaders accountable often depends on the critical work of journalists, who verify whistleblowers’ disclosures, and then bring them to the public.”

(5) Explore additional resources 

There are a lot of resources for working with whistleblowers. Below are just a few places to start: 

Main image CC-licensed by Unsplash via Philipp Katzenberger.