They pay with their peace

Globally, whistleblowers in government, corporate world and NGOs were murdered, belittled, discredited and dubbed mentally ill. but they managed to shake up things—sometimes.

By Alam Srinivas, India Legal, May 21, 2014. Republished with permission.

REMEMBER Satyendra Dubey? Shanmughan Manjunath? Vijay Pandhare? Or Dinesh Thakur? Don’t feel bad if you don’t. Apart from Dubey, all of them were little-known whistleblowers in government and India Inc., who exposed corruption and vanished after being in the news for a few days. Two of them were brutally murdered; Dubey, after he spoke about the shenanigans in the Golden Quadrilateral highway project, and Manjunath, when he talked about petrol adulteration.

Pandhare and Thakur, however, were successful in their endeavors. The former blew the whistle on Maharashtra’s irrigation scam that led to the resignation of the state’s deputy chief minister, Ajit Pawar. After retirement from the bureaucracy, he joined the Aam Aadmi Party. The latter’s expose on pharma major Ranbaxy Laboratories led to a ban on sale of the firm’s drugs in the US, and investigations in India. The US Justice Department gave him a reward of nearly $50 million.

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But most of the experiences of whistleblowers, either in India or globally, fall within these two extremes of success and death. As Donald Ray Soeken, whose recent book, Don’t Kill the Messenger! How Americas Valiant Whistleblowers Risk Everything in Order to Speak Out Against Waste, Fraud and Abuse in Business and Government, profiles 100 US whistleblowers, says: “The frequent symptoms reported by them and their spouses were increased anxiety and loss of sleep. Most suffered from depression. They went through feelings of isolation and being misunderstood:’

Soeken, a former government psychologist, who provided objective medical testimony to the courts to determine the mental state of the whistleblowers, adds: “Quite often, the plan by the defense (accused government officials and corporate managers) was to discredit the individuals (who complained). The idea was to focus all the problems on the whistleblowers, rather than the truth of their exposure of waste, fraud, or abuse of power:’

It is easy to stereotype the whistle blowers as mentally unstable men, and those who have lost touch with reality. This was beautifully captured in the movie, The Insider, which was based on Jeffrey Wigand, head of research, Brown & Williamson, then the third largest tobacco company in the US. After he was fired, Wigand went public with “inside information” on how the firm hid research findings against smoking and scuttled moves to make safer cigarettes.

Within no time, he was vilified by Brown & Williamson’s “guerilla public relation”. He was accused of being a “dishonest fraud artist’; old allegations of spousal abuse and shoplifting against him, where charges were never filed, were made public, and he received death threats. He lost his privacy, as these threats were aired on TV news without his knowledge. Scared of the dangers involved, his wife and kids left him; later, she divorced him.

According to Soeken, it is easy for the accused, which are powerful institutions in government and corporate areas, to create doubts about the mental behavior of the whistleblowers. Of course, the problem with the mental tag is that a medical person can be paid to make the expected diagnosis. In addition, the management at a whistleblower’s former job site or office can have plausible deniability, i.e. ‘we had nothing to do with diagnosing the individual as mentally ill’:’

The fact is that a psychiatrist can always find something wrong with another person. He or she can then magnify the problem. This is where the expertise of a government psychologist like Soeken came into play. “My main task was to provide the court … with a true and honest report. In all of the cases (mentioned in his book), it worked, but the government and corporations did score some victories with their bogus reports;’ he explains.

Donald Ray Soeken, PhD
Donald Ray Soeken, PhD

For people like Soeken, the first step in working with whistleblowers is to “accept the premise that the problems they report are factually accurate’: In his experience, despite the defense’s attempts to challenge their credibility, most of the allegations proved correct. The second step for the counselor is to carefully review the whistleblower’s evidence to continue to earn his or her confidence. “Most whistleblowers observe a personal code of ethics or one related to the government agency or corporation where they work;’ says Soeken.

Media can play a major role in this process. Decades ago, India Legal’s Editor-in-chief Inderjit Badhwar, for instance, helped Soeken and the whistleblowers he worked with. When he worked with America’s legendary journalist and muckraker, Jack Anderson, “he wrote articles about the cases, which helped them in front of Congressional representatives,” explains Soeken. He adds that during this process, when the whistle blower was validated, it turned out to be “a helpfully therapeutic aspect of public exposure of the problems”.

For the whistleblowers to remain sane, confident, and on their path, it is critical for them to believe that they did the right thing. This is the only way they can hang on to their lives, careers, family and friends. And, of course, the cases.