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05/03/2013

Whistleblowers still battling the odds to do the right thing

Giraffes blog
They can't help sticking their necks out: giraffes in Tanazania's Lake Manyara National Park. (Photo: Christian Jensen)

“You know how to whistle, don’t you?” says Lauren Bacall’s famous line from To Have and Have Not. “You just put your lips together and blow.”

If only it were that simple.

For whistleblowers, who go up against corporations, governments and organized criminals, it can be the most difficult decision of a lifetime.

John Graham, director of Giraffe Heroes International – a U.S.-based group that celebrates those who stick their necks out for the common good – says that although there are some advances to help whistleblowers, in some cases it’s also getting harder.

“Technology makes it easier, because it’s easier to uncover the nasty stuff that’s going on,” says the retired American diplomat. “The hard part is that in the U.S., for instance, employers are trying to get access to employees' emails.”

And he adds, “the bottom line is it still takes a lot of guts.”

That’s clear from the treatment of U.S. soldier Bradley Manning, who was locked up in conditions human rights advocates have called torture on suspicion of sending classified government emails to WikiLeaks. Or the fate of Russian tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky who died in a Moscow jail after blowing the whistle on a huge alleged tax fraud scheme.

Neither is on the giraffe list. But many lower profile giraffes are sticking their necks out every day, and paying a heavy price. Graham himself was put on a no-fly list by the Bush administration after Sept. 11 – and in spite of his diplomatic connections has never been able to find out why, or remove his name.

On the Giraffe Heroes database is an exhaustive list of ordinary people who have sacrificed much to do what they believe is the right thing.

Like Zimbabwean Farai Maguwu, who documented the brutality of President Robert Mugabe’s security forces when they attacked poor “illegal” miners and local civilians in the country's diamond fields. He was imprisoned for six months and is under constant surveillance. But he continues fighting for justice and a fair share of Zimbabwe’s rich resources for all its people.

Or lawyer and environmental activist Meena Raman of Malaysia, who stood in front of tractors to stop dumping of radioactive waste in areas that were home to 10,000 people. She was thrown into jail, but the offending company closed down.

Or Justine Masika Bihamba, whose life has been threatened and family forced to flee the dangerous eastern Democratic Republic of Congo because of her ongoing campaign to seek medical, social and legal help for women who have been savagely raped.

Or Northrup Grumman Corp. comptroller Jean-Francois Truong of Los Angeles, who went up against the aerospace giant in court with allegations of fraud, including huge cost overruns on the B-2 bomber,. He exposed the misuse of public money, embarrassing the company and the government.

These are just a few of dozens of people whose courage earned them a giraffe citation. For readers looking for hope and change, the website should be required reading. It’s a bracing change from the often dismal news of the day.

Olivia Ward has covered conflicts, politics and human rights from the former Soviet Union to the Middle East and South Asia, winning national and international awards, including the Michener Award for public service journalism.


  

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