Among Tshwane’s cornerstone principles:
• The public has a right to government information, and the burden is on governments to show why and when that right must be restricted.
• Certain types of information are of such compelling public interest that they should be disclosed except in “the most exceptional circumstances.” Included are rules authorizing arrest, surveillance, and serious human rights violations.
• People who expose wrongdoing “should not face retaliation if the public interest in the information disclosed outweighs the public interest in secrecy.”
• Whistleblowers should first try to address problems through official channels, if possible. And they should not disclose any more information than is necessary to bring attention to the wrongdoing — which, Coliver suggests, is a standard that was exceeded by Manning’s alleged release of 700,000 military and diplomatic documents.
• Most remarkably, though, even if a whistleblower violates those guidelines, Tshwane asserts that any penalty should be proportionate to the actual harm done.
“Government authorities, in order to justify any punishment, should undertake an investigation, and should explain publicly, in as complete detail as possible, the actual and specific harm caused,” Coliver writes
That, to me, is the most galling element of the current U.S. secrecy panic and the frenzied counterattack against the people behind the disclosures. For all the gnashing of teeth over the Manning leaks, for all the fevered denunciations of Snowden’s exposing domestic surveillance, nobody has pointed to actual harm — to national security, to counterterrorism, to intelligence agents, to diplomatic initiatives, to the confidentiality of top-level parleys.
That leaves open the possibility that these whistleblowers, far from being traitors and enemies, are our benefactors.