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The Future of Whistleblowing

Hero or villain?  The people are torn.  PFC Bradley Manning was acquitted of “aiding the enemy” today, but was found guilty of five other violations of the Espionage Act as well as 10 other lesser charges against him.  The charge of aiding the enemy was the most serious crime that Manning could have been convicted of, carrying a potential life-sentence, but the charges he was convicted of could send him to prison for a lifetime.  The government and those who side with the it believe that Manning was a traitor and seriously compromised the safety and sanctity of the United States and its people.  On the other side of the fence are those that see Manning as a hero, someone willing to sacrifice a life in prison to expose the true nature of government operations.  Many people, though, are on the fence and do not know what to think.  It seems like Manning released these documents and videos with the intent to advance the greater good of society, but he could also have done so in a brash attempt to advance an extreme political agenda.  Wherever you sit, the implications of Manning’s trial will radiate throughout the media and government sectors of the country.

So what does this verdict mean for  the future of whistleblowing… the future of exposing potentially damaging government secrets to benefit the public good (assuming that there is a utilitarian intent behind all of this)?   Or the future of journalism?

…Judge Col. Lind asked prosecutors if they would have pressed the aiding the enemy charge if Manning had leaked to the New York Times instead of WikiLeaks. The answer: “Yes Ma’am.”

Benkler, a witness for the defense, wrote that such an answer “makes the Manning prosecution a clear and present danger to journalism in the national security arena.”

Credit: The National Journal

This quote could easily stoke the fire of a debate regarding the First Amendment freedom of speech. However, it begs the question of whether or not news outlets should be hesitant to publish leaks from whistle-blowers?  Should an organization like the New York Times be concerned that information they publish could potentially result in the deaths of United States citizens?

Part of living in a free society, with rights such as those granted to us by the First Amendment, is being able to take advantage of the freedoms given.  For news media, it is about publishing information that truly merits public knowledge.  There is no guarantee that what you say or publish will not cause harm however.  This creates troubling and complex issues for news sources that receive delicate information like this, and tugs at the heart-strings of wanting to avoid harm while still telling the whole story.

People like Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden are hard to find (that is a horrendous understatement).  These people “blew the whistle” knowing very well that they could be breathing down the barrel of an angry government seeking to punish them for revealing classified and sensitive information.  They did so anyway.  If a verdict like Manning’s had occurred before either Manning or Snowden leaked their information, they would probably not be deterred by it.

There will always be cases where the need to shed public light on government secrets greatly outweighs the fear of capture, prosecution, and detention.

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