Taking action

Chapter 10 of Suppression Stories by Brian Martin (Wollongong: Fund for Intellectual Dissent, 1997), pages 149-161.

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If you have come under attack for your dissent or are thinking about speaking out, the first thing you should do is seek advice from people who have experience with opposing suppression. But often there's no one available, in which case you should consult some writings on the topic. The best single publication on this is Courage Without Martyrdom: A Survival Guide for Whistleblowers. It's published by two groups based in Washington DC, the Government Accountability Project and the Project on Government Procurement, both of which have tremendous experience in defending whistleblowers. Much of this handbook is specific to the US, but the general points have wide applicability. Courage Without Martyrdom at the beginning lists eight "survival strategies," which are worth listing here. They are very much in tune with my experience.

Courage Without Martyrdom gives more detail on each of these points, plus much more valuable information. The advice is aimed at whistleblowers who work in government or corporations, but many of the suggestions are helpful for those who encounter suppression outside these particular circumstances.

In the first half of 1996, I visited all the capital cities in Australia and took the opportunity to interview whistleblowers individually and in groups. Of the questions I asked, the two most revealing were "What were the most important lessons from your experience?" and "What do you wish you'd known at the time?" As expected, different individuals gave different answers. After all, each person's experience is unique. But there were also some recurring messages, often expressed with great passion.

There were lots of other useful hints mentioned by one or more people, including:

When I asked whether there was written material that was helpful to them at the time, many said there was nothing, or perhaps a newspaper article. The document most commonly recommended was Courage Without Martyrdom.

What if you are not under threat yourself, but want to help those who are? Simply listening to dissidents is immensely important. You can suggest different options, mentioning their strengths and weaknesses, and thus help the person make a better decision.

If you want to become overtly involved, you must take advice from the person most affected - the dissident. Action might be "just" writing a letter of support. This is more important than it seems. It shows outsiders and the dissident that someone else cares. There are many other things that can be done, including attending meetings with or on behalf of the dissident, helping prepare submissions, collecting and checking information, finding witnesses, writing leaflets and articles, investigating claims and organising media coverage. If there is a campaign around the case, there is the task of coordination. This is a major commitment. It involves finding and keeping in contact with supporters, collecting and distributing information, holding meetings to work out strategy, making links with journalists, and perhaps organising action such as petitions, public meetings, vigils and rallies. In order to be inspired to take up a suppression case, a potential organiser needs to know why it's important. There needs to be a goal.



A strategy can be thought of as a plan for getting from the present situation to a future goal. To develop a strategy, it's first necessary to understand the present. This includes details about what happened in a suppression case but also an analysis of the vested interests involved, the various alliances and contradictions within the social structure, the meanings that people place on events, and so forth. Then there's the goal, namely what is being aimed for. The strategy is the plan to get there, taking into account everything known about the present.

What is the goal? In many cases, the goal is to stop the suppression. This might mean ending harassment on the job, getting controversial articles published, or obtaining compensation for wrongful dismissal. In other cases the goal is to stop a corrupt activity or fix a hazard. Be careful. The goal may not be as obvious as it may seem at first.

In the case of Jeremy Evans and the Human Sciences Program, one goal was tenure for Jeremy. But this was only part of a wider set of goals, which might include - depending on who you ask - putting the Human Sciences Program on a secure, stable and autonomous footing, establishing interdisciplinary environmental education as a valid part of the university, and contributing to a stronger and more effective environmental consciousness throughout society. Getting tenure for Jeremy seems a reasonable short-term goal but, some might argue, only if it contributes to achieving the broader, long-term goals concerning environmental education and social awareness.

To take another example, consider Brian O'Brien's legal action for defamation against Mark Diesendorf and the Australian Conservation Foundation. One goal of the ACF was to win or settle the suit without massive cost. A wider goal was to be able to continue its campaign on climate change and for its employees to be able to make statements about the greenhouse effect without being met by threats of legal action. A wider goal yet might have been to change defamation laws so that honest discussion of scientific and social issues is fostered rather than inhibited.

People may disagree about long-term goals. Whatever they are, it is important to keep them in mind when planning campaigns. The big danger is to put all the attention on the short-term goal and to lose sight of the long-term goal.

Sometimes dissidents haven't worked out even their short-term goals. One of the first things I ask people is what they want to achieve. Sometimes they can't provide a very good answer. They want justice, they want to expose the nasty things the other side has been doing, or they want to get everything back the way it was before. This isn't specific enough or realistic enough. The short-term goal needs to be clearly defined and achievable.

Probably the most important thing to do to develop a strategy is to actually spend time working on it. Rather than act on the basis of anger or inspiration, sit down and examine the situation. How do things stand at present? Who are current supporters? Who are potential supporters? Who are actual and potential opponents? What actions can be taken to win greater support or to undercut opposition? What actions are people willing to take? What will be the financial costs? How much time will it take? Is it worth the effort? What are the different options? What are their pluses and minuses? What happens if everything fails? Is it worth taking the risk? What are the options down the track? Is this the best time and place to make a stand? Does this action contribute to long-term goals?

For big campaigns, it is worth doing some study into methods of social action. It's also worthwhile to contact experienced social activists and obtain their advice.



One of the most creative challenges for a dissident is to avoid suppression in the first place. At the national conference on intellectual suppression and whistleblowing in Canberra in 1993, several of the whistleblowers made the same point: don't just leap to make a protest. Instead, figure out the situation. Talk to others and build support. Collect documents, make copies and save them in safe places. Carefully analyse who has power and who is likely to use it. Be prepared to use the media if necessary. Finally, choose the right moment to speak out. Don't just be principled - be effective too. Courage Without Martyrdom has the same message, as the title indicates.

Hugh DeWitt has worked for many years as a theoretical physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where US nuclear weapons are designed. Hugh has been the Lab's most vocal critic of US nuclear weapons policy, writing articles, giving testimony, and speaking to journalists. It seems incredible that he has been able to survive in his job for so long. He has certainly had some close calls, when pressures were put on him. What has protected him is the support he has built up from a variety of outside groups: individual scientists, anti-nuclear groups, politicians, journalists and others. Of course, he is careful in what he does, for example in not revealing secret information. But while being careful, he is also courageous. When he comes under threat, he is able to call on supporters. The possibility of massive negative publicity for the Lab if he were ever dismissed is undoubtedly the reason he has survived in his job without compromising his principles.

Suppression will certainly continue to occur so long as some groups have much more power than others. As long as organisations like the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory exist, then life will be difficult for dissenters like Hugh DeWitt. For he is the exception. Most of the lab's workers have no intention of speaking out, and indeed few of them see any reason to dissent in the first place.

The same problem applies wherever suppression occurs: corporations, government bureaucracies, political parties, media, churches, trade unions, and so on. You can dream up all the procedures that you like, but as long as a few people at the top have lots of power, they are likely to use it to squash dissent.


Formal channels to the rescue?

Confronted with the abuse of power, most people think the solution is to get rid of the corrupt individuals and bring in honest rulers and bosses. People vote governments out of office, companies introduce enlightened management, and bureaucracies institute reforms. This may provide some temporary relief, but it doesn't solve the fundamental problem. As noted in the previous chapter, power tends to corrupt. The new rulers may start out with the best of intentions, but are likely to succumb to the temptations of power.

As described in chapter 6, many whistleblowers put high hopes in official channels, even after the official channels have failed time and time again. Is it any wonder that great hope is placed in a new official channel, whistleblower protection legislation? Unfortunately, there's little basis for hope. To begin, most governments are reluctant to pass such legislation. When they do, it is usually hedged with restrictions. For example, the Queensland government's whistleblower law only gives relief if the whistleblower goes through "proper channels" - and this means not going to the media. The experience of whistleblower protection legislation in the US is basically that it doesn't work. It has been sabotaged by the people running the agency. Few cases are ever pursued and hence few whistleblowers are protected. Courage Without Martyrdom discusses the various US channels that whistleblowers can use, such as hot lines, Inspectors General, Congress, and laws. Not a single one of them works well. The Office of the Special Counsel was set up to protect whistleblowers, but it actually has served more to give them false hope and even harass them. One head of the Office of the Special Counsel, Alex Kozinski, even went so far as to help others attack whistleblowers: "Using the OSC's own investigative manual as a guide, he taught a course for federal managers on how to fire employees without OSC interference."

It almost looks like a conspiracy. When popular concern about bureaucratic corruption reaches a peak, a government may pass some legislation to protect whistleblowers and hence give the appearance of doing something even though not much has changed. But it doesn't require a conspiracy for this to happen. Governments are very reluctant to make it possible for their employees to freely make criticisms of policies and managers, since the whole government apparatus is built on control from the top. Those politicians who genuinely want to do something must operate within the standard parameters, which means setting up another government agency. If an agency ever gets set up, it is starved of funds and in any case soon makes its peace with the other bureaucracies with which it must work. If it stirs up too much trouble, it will be squashed. Finally, whistleblower protection only ever helps those who fit the official definition of a whistleblower. Many of those who are suppressed do not fit this definition.

There's no denying that whistleblower legislation may help a few individuals. The danger is to imagine that such legislation is the solution to the problem, and to put lots of energy into pushing for it.

Bill De Maria, who headed Australia's largest study into whistleblowing, is severely critical of whistleblower laws. After scrutinising the provisions of whistleblower protection laws passed or proposed in Australia and New Zealand, he concluded: "Whistleblower legislation is an exercise in damage control. Whistleblowers are fettered by rigid legislation which defines wrongdoing and public interest disclosures, and sets out the narrow pathways they must travel in order to receive 'protection.' In other words, the state has effectively colonised the potentially subversive activity called whistleblowing. Or so it thinks."

The weaknesses of whistleblower legislation are one aspect of the weakness of formal channels generally, to return to the theme of chapter 6. In a study of the responses of external agencies to whistleblower disclosures, De Maria and Cyrelle Jan found that the most common were no action, a negative response and referral to another agency. In less than one out of ten cases was the response positive, such as protecting the whistleblower.

If a government really wanted to do something to help the cause of intellectual freedom, it could abolish financial penalties for defamation, get rid of laws prohibiting free speech by government employees, and provide arms-length funding for free speech organisations and whistleblower support groups. But recommending what governments should do is a prescription for frustration, since it so seldom succeeds and in any case avoids the more useful response of taking action oneself.


The strategy of mobilisation

Quite a few of the whistleblowers who I talk to have already tried formal channels, almost always without success. For example, they might have talked to their boss about stealing at the workplace, only to find that they come under attack themselves. Should they contact top management? Should they make a complaint to the ombudsman? Should they write to the prime minister? Based on the evidence, I say, it's probably a waste of time proceeding this way.

So what's the alternative? I think there is a much greater chance of changing undesirable practices and avoiding reprisals by trying to win support. This can be called a strategy of mobilisation, since the goal is to mobilise people to provide passive or active support.

The first step is to see if there are others in the organisation who will support you. If even two or three are willing, you can meet informally with them to discuss tactics. (Be careful. Remember, some whistleblowers advise "don't trust anyone.") If you have even one other who is willing to support you openly, it can make quite a difference.

However many are willing to act from within - just yourself or a group - it is difficult to bring about change without support from the outside. The next step is to bring outsiders into the picture. This can be done by individual discussions, but often it is valuable to produce a written account of the problems and recommended solutions. A one-page summary of the issue is often most effective. It can be accompanied, if appropriate, by a package of supporting documents. This might be, for example:

Every fact in the document should be checked and double-checked and the finished product should be seen by someone knowledgeable about defamation. It should also be read by someone not familiar with the issues to ensure that it is well written and easily understood by outsiders.

The document can initially be circulated only to people likely to have a special interest in the issues. The aim should be to expose the wrongdoing to people who have no vested interest in hiding it. The document could be given to, for example:

Distribution of the statement needs to be carefully thought through. Taking action this way can extremely powerful. It can mobilise support but also lead to greater attacks. So be prepared. The way to respond to attacks is to expand circulation of documents, or produce new ones exposing the attacks.

Another step is to contact the media. Jounalists may find out about the issue anyway once a statement is circulated. So have a media strategy. Know what you want to say - including a 30-second grab - and what action you want official bodies to take.

You are not guaranteed of media coverage. Sometimes the media will not touch the case, perhaps because it is not considered newsworthy, is too complex, is too dangerous due to the risk of defamation suits, or because the media have strong links with the wrongdoers. Media coverage can be very helpful for mobilising support, but it should not be relied upon. By circulating your own document to people you choose, you have some degree of control.

There are many variants on this approach, since each case has its own particular characteristics. It might be that e-mail provides a useful method of mobilising support. It might be that you can get someone on the outside to write an account for you. You might have contacts in high places, such as parliament, who can act on your behalf. But the basic approach should be clear. It is to mobilise support by alerting ever more people about what is going on.

What about using formal channels at the same time? This is certainly possible. The dynamics of formal channels and mobilisation are quite different, though. Sometimes they conflict. If you are using formal channels, people may think that will provide a solution, so why be concerned? On the other hand, a sophisticated campaign can be built by using formal channels as a tool for mobilisation. For example, the presentation of a complaint to an official body - or the body's failure to act - sometimes can be used to generate publicity. The danger is that formal channels will suck up so much energy and hope that there is not enough left for a strategy of mobilisation.

Some whistleblowers are long-time activists and use the mobilisation strategy as a matter of course, with great skill. Others, by contrast, instinctively use formal channels and only later, after disillusionment with the system, are willing to consider other approaches. For such whistleblowers, circulating leaflets, organising meetings, giving speeches and talking to the media are not easy. In my view, this approach has a far greater chance of success than relying only on formal channels. If anything is likely to make the formal channels responsive, it is popular exposure and outside pressure. Anyone can learn the skills. It's a matter of getting advice from activists who are familiar with the techniques. There's no guarantee of success, but at the very least quite a lot of people will become aware of the problem. That in itself is a significant achievement.


Structural change?

Sometimes a campaign against suppression contributes to a wider challenge to the social structures that lead to suppression. A good example is the campaign in defence of Tim Anderson, an activist wrongly accused of a major crime. In February 1978 a bomb exploded outside the Hilton Hotel in Sydney during a meeting of the Commonwealth Heads of Government. Three people were killed and others injured. The Prime Minister immediately called out troops to protect the visiting officials. The police and government blamed "terrorists." But terrorists usually claim responsibility and on this occasion no one did.

The police spied on a socio-religious group called Ananda Marga. In June 1978 they arrested three members of Ananda Marga for conspiracy to murder the leader of a neo-fascist party. The trial received enormous attention, for the police alleged the three had confessed responsibility for the Hilton bombing, although this was not pursued in court. Based on testimony of a police informer, Richard Seary, the three went to prison.

Many people thought this was a frame-up. Seary's evidence was dubious. Defenders of the three in prison mobilised. After years of appeals, inquiries and hearings, the last of which exposed lying by Seary and police officers, in 1985 they were freed by the government, pardoned and paid compensation.

Two of the three retired from the public eye. The third was Tim Anderson. He became a prominent social activist, especially in exposing police corruption. In 1989 he was arrested and charged over the Hilton bombing. He went to trial and prison. An even more massive campaign was launched to prove his innocence. Eventually it succeeded and he was acquitted in 1991.

Political trials are not common in Australia, and the victimisation of Tim Anderson angered many people. An entire organisation was formed, Campaign Exposing the Frame-up of Tim Anderson or CEFTA. It held meetings, organised research, raised money, generated publicity, produced a newsletter and generally did everything possible to support Tim. After two years of action, CEFTA was successful and Tim was exonerated. After his release from prison the second time, CEFTA became Campaign Exposing Frame-ups and Targeting Abuses of Authority. Eventually the name was changed to Justice Action. It continues to expose frame-ups and police corruption. This important on-going effort was triggered by opposing a single case of political victimisation. It shows how a campaign against suppression can be linked to struggles to change the social structures that produce suppression.


Being self-reliant

Just as it is not wise to rely on honest rulers to dispense justice, I think that it is best not to rely on a small number of individuals to be the main defenders of dissent. It's a taxing role, and it's also virtually impossible to consistently defend dissent in every possible circumstance. But my main point is that it will be more effective for many more people to become defenders of dissent. As whistleblower researcher Bill De Maria says, we need to create a "culture of dissent."

When you are involved in a suppression case, whether your own or someone else's, it should be a top priority to build up skills in effective dissent - your skills and those of others. That means learning how to articulate ideas, organise a campaign and work with like-minded people. It also means developing and exercising principles.

Don't rely on "experts" to do everything for you, whether they are lawyers, trade union officials, knowledgeable friends or others. By all means seek advice but try to be self-reliant. Learn as much as possible yourself and help others to learn. Write letters and get advice on improving. But also help others to write letters. Organise meetings. Plan campaigns. These are all skills that can be learned.

I know that I can only help a few people. I also know that often I can't be of much help, since I'm too far away, not knowledgeable enough, or not familiar with the local situation. Furthermore, dealing with suppression is not my full-time job. Other research, teaching and activities take priority. The best advice I can offer you is to have the confidence to do things on your own.

If you want to take action against suppression, there's plenty to do. I can recommend it. It's challenging, revealing, stimulating and worthwhile - and you get to meet the most interesting people.