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MARTIN LAINE – ONLY ONE MAN IS NEEDED TO DESTROY CORRUPTION

Martin Laine

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We asked journalist Martin Laine from Estonia to share his experience with whistleblowing. He is one of the speakers at Whistleblowing Conference which is planned in autumn.

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Whistleblowing came into my mind as a concept early on in my life through a movie “All the President’s Men” which tells a real-life story about journalists working with Deep Throat, a whistleblower whose testimony led to the Watergate scandal. This scandal ended up with the US president Richard Nixon’s resignation – one of the biggest impacts of a journalistic coverage in history.

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It’s an inspiring story and in my mind, every whistleblower story is. Only one person and two journalists were needed to destroy corruption on the highest level imaginable.

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Although it is inspiring and has a great impact for the whole society, we don’t see these kinds of stories that often. Whistleblowers give the (public) institutions and the whole society a helping hand in cleansing themselves from corruption but usually the society is not ready for these types of wake-up calls.

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The fact that the whistleblower exists in the first place, tells us that the reaction of the system could be irrational and hostile.

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So, inside the systems that the potential whistleblowers operate in, there is actually a great danger (retaliation, getting fired, etc.), no real support and constant pressure. Basically, potential whistleblowers all live in a system that tells them the complete opposite of what they feel constantly. This fills them with constant fear and doubts. Therefore, whistleblowing itself requires major self-sacrifice and confidence; this is a rare combination. Therefore, we don’t actually see whistleblowing cases that often, and something so rare and self-sacrificing is quite valuable.

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Reasons to blow the whistle

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There’s nothing I can tell someone that would actually persuade them to whistleblow. There’s no guarantee that whistleblowing will end up in whistleblower’s favour; usually it happens the other way around.

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A whistleblower I worked with suffered a lot after he told his story to us: they felt a constant pressure by the higher-ups, saw the institution he worked at repeatedly saying that everything he claimed was wrong,, suffered in his personal life and lost the ability to sleep properly for countless nights.

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That’s the probable reality for every whistleblower. But when I ask him if he regrets something, he has always answered with no doubts: “No.” If someone is a person like that, there’s no persuasion needed. He sees how and why his voice helps the society no matter what the system around him tries to tell.

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My definition of a whistleblower

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I do have my own definition of a whistleblower coming from my experiences. Journalists work with sources all the time, but we don’t call everyone whistleblowers.

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A whistleblower is someone whose testimony will quite surely lead to some kind of an impact necessary for the development of a society or an institution.

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A whistleblower is someone who is able to evaluate and notice faults in unwritten or even written rules. So, he or she has to be able to sometimes do wrong (example: publish data, secret documents illegally) to help fix the bigger wrong. So, a whistleblower needs to be confident and able to acknowledge rationally the moral dilemmas in whistleblowing. Everyone is not capable of that.

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A whistleblower is someone who is potentially ready to sacrifice his or her own wellbeing for the greater good.

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A whistleblower is not only someone who is sincere with his motives, he or she is actually able to communicate these motives well enough that they help persuade the public in the sincerity of the action.

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In my mind, a whistleblower is someone who, if possible, is ready to speak up under his or her own face and name. Of course, it’s not always possible and even rational, but it is possible more often than people think. This, in parts, leads us back to self-sacrifice. At the same time, if the whistleblowing is successful in creating pressure from the public, the name and face could protect the whistleblower. Retaliating that kind of a symbol we all know is much more difficult than to fire an ‘anonymous tipper’ (which happened to one of my sources previously).

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Raising awareness about whistleblowing – to make our society better

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My job as a journalist, in my mind, is not to persuade anyone to blow the whistle but to applaud and support someone after the decision is made. Persuading someone is a moral dilemma for me because my work directly benefits from whistleblowers as they help me to make great and important stories. So, I cannot be completely objective since I have my own personal reasons for them to help to tell their story.

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But choosing my job as a journalist was driven by the objective reasoning of its necessity (if done right) in helping a society’s development; it’s coded into me. I know that unfortunately journalists and whistleblowers are sometimes not regarded as a necessity for the wellbeing of society. So, there’s some obvious empathy involved as well.

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I live in a post-soviet society (although well-developed) where ‘telling on anyone’ is inherently seen as something reprehensible. It’s coded into people since their childhood. So, this in general, bothers me as well and it can’t be changed without raising awareness of the benefits of “telling on someone”.

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It’s obvious for me that in every way possible I need to campaign for whistleblowing to make the society a better place and to help my work be more important and impactful as well. So, my campaigning for whistleblowing is driven by both objective and subjective reasons.

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One of the obvious ways to campaign, is to perform at conferences, speak up, etc., which I do. But in my everyday job all I can do is to act as an effective loudspeaker for whistleblowers. This requires impactful writing, packaging and marketing of whistleblower stories.

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How to deal and how not to deal with whistleblowers – on this at the Whistleblowing conference

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Since summer 2019 I’ve been involved with a whistleblowing scandal about possible illicit use of European funds in a local university in Estonia. This story started from a whistleblower testimony. Because of our reporting and the testimony, a criminal investigation, European Commission’s audit and a thorough inside look at handling of project money in the university by the Estonian Ministry of Education and Research have all been or are being carried out. Also, me and my colleague Oliver Kund have been awarded with anti-corruption action of the year award by Transparency International Estonia for reporting on possible retaliation issues after our initial article broke.

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This story, which actually started more than a year ago, is a perfect case study because of what happened before the whistleblower walked into our newsroom and what followed.

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No matter the actual outcome of this case I can share my personal experiences, what went wrong in the institution before and after the incident in terms of handling the whistleblower testimony. I’m certain that when the institution would have used the right tools and procedure in dealing with the initial signals, this reputational damage for the institution and for the whole science field in Estonia could have been avoided.

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Through that experience I can describe how to deal with whistleblowers, or at least, how not to deal with them to avoid national scandals and damage of reputation.

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2nd Whistleblowing Conference is organised by Alliance Against Corruption in Latvia.

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