Snowden's Asian Effect: Inspiring Whistleblowers


Neoliberalism represents illegal, immoral or illegitimate practices to squeeze super profits at the expense of the welfare of vast masses of workers and poor. In this paradigm, bringing out issues relating to abuses of governments and large corporations into public domain is a great service to humanity. Taking up this mission, a small group of people called whistleblowers has been exposing multi-million dollar financial scams, wrong doing of government officials, illegal land-grab, unethical corporate practices, labor abuses, dangerous medical practices, etc., across the world. They play a crucial role to maintain transparency and accountability in the public affairs, and also save resources and even lives. They undertake these efforts with high personal risk facing dismissal, humiliation or physical abuse. A large number of whistleblowers were fired from their jobs or prosecuted or even killed in many countries.

Since Edward Snowden revealed the global surveillance program of the US National Security Agency, he became a symbol of courage in defending the basic freedoms of modern democratic states “to speak and to think and to live and be creative, to have relationships and to associate freely.” As Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, said, “the effect has been transformative” in many Asian countries also.

The Permanent Mission of India at the UN and the Indian embassy in Washington, D.C., have been the targets for spying by the NSA, which infiltrated their computers and telephones with high-tech bugs. The Hindu, India’s leading English-language daily, obtained a top-secret NSA document and published a story on it. The NSA got “access to vast quantities of Internet traffic, e-mails, telephone and office conversations and even official documents stored digitally.” Indians were greatly aggrieved by Snowden’s exposure. India was the fifth largest target for the US snooping program. The US, through its embassies in a number of Asian countries, monitored the activities of the top government officials including their telephone calls and data exchanges

The surveillance programs seriously affect the actions of the whistleblowers. The resolution passed in the UN last year called “Right to Privacy in the Digital Age” must be duly respected and implemented in all countries. The Snowden phenomena raised crucial questions concerning the sovereignty of the nations as well as the individual’s right to privacy. Also, it raises the questions regarding transparency of state and non-state organizations including the big corporations. But the corporations, instead of maintaining standards of transparency and accountability to the people, are trying to further safeguard their secret machinations.

Asian corporate executives were alarmed over the Snowden disclosures. The business magazine CIO Asia stressed “the need for multi-layer security or automatic triggers for wiping data” and advised the corporates to give up “the old thinking of relying on encryption to safeguard data” only.

As the cybersecurity and Internet freedoms are becoming serious concerns, the governments and consumers are taking action to protect their own networks from cyber attacks. Singapore is investing over US $100 million in new cyber-defense agencies. Indonesia is developing a “cyber army” integrating into existing military structures. However, many surveillance actions may provide cover for Asian governments to further invade privacy.

In the larger context, the rights of global citizens have to be protected and all notorious activities infringing on their rights should be stopped. Particularly, the mass surveillance conducted by the US and the United Kingdom from their domestic soil has to be curbed. The US has to review its laws, procedures and practices regarding the mass surveillance of communications, their interception and collection of personal data. The right to privacy is the important human right.And guaranteeing this right is an important constituent of a popular movement which would strengthen the glorious efforts of whistleblowers. They demand that the US must implement its obligations under international human rights law among the people is growing in Asia. It is necessary to formulate a globally binding framework to delineate rights and obligations inter se states as well as between states and individuals.

India has a long tradition of social movements taking up the issues of negligence, abuses and corrupt practices of state and private organizations. The individuals and the non-governmental organizations are effectively using the Right to Information Act to get the secret details regarding the commissions and omissions of the powerful elites and arouse the anger of common powerless people against the injustices. The Right to Information Act, introduced in 2005, has helped reveal corruption at the highest levels such as the swindling of public money when the Commonwealth Games were held in India and huge scam of a $40 billion involving mobile phone companies.

However, India and other countries in Asia have to go a long way in setting up a legal mechanism for the protection of the whistleblowers.The Left in India have been demanding more laws to make the ruling elites  more accountable to people and to protect the whistleblowers.The Parliament of India has yet to pass a number of accountability legislations like the Whistleblower Protection bill of 2011, and the Right of Citizens for Time Bound Delivery of Goods and Services and Redressal of Grievances bill, 2011, the Judicial Accountability Bill.

Recently the Indian Parliament passed an anti-corruption law seeking the appointment of an independent body, called Lokpal (The institution of Ombudsman) to investigate corruption cases against government officials or dealings. In this regard, the Left demanded electoral reforms to curb corporate donations to political parties. According to the Left anti-corruption law should cover cases where a corporate entity sought to influence government policy through corrupt means. The Left firmly demanded that “the corporate sector should be brought under the ambit of Lokpal.” 

People like Bradley/Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden and Julian Assange are brave and definitely their actions were very admirable. But the mission of whistleblowers’’ selfless service will be fruitful if it is accompanied by the strong peoples’ movements on the issues of injustice, corruption and other evils of the present social order.

N. Gunasekaran is a political activist and writer based in Chennai, India.

From The Progressive Populist, March 1, 2014

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