ARTICLE 19 welcomes outgoing US President Barack Obama’s decision to commute the sentence of whistleblower Chelsea Manning, and reiterates calls on the US government to further demonstrate its commitment to freedom of expression and information by pardoning whistleblower Edward Snowden
Manning’s conviction and sentencing in 2013 on charges related to the leak of classified information revealing serious human rights violations was not only contrary to international standards on the protection of whistleblowers, but set a worrying precedent on the protection of the right to freedom of expression and information in the US and globally.
“Chelsea Manning’s commutation is welcome news from a government that oversaw a crackdown on whistleblowers and journalistic sources. Manning’s conviction and sentence did not allow for the public interest in exposing government wrongdoing to be considered, and should therefore never have been imposed,” said Thomas Hughes, Executive Director of ARTICLE 19.
Chelsea Manning, previously known as Bradley Manning at the time of the leaks, was convicted in 2013 on charges including espionage for the leak of classified documents exposing human rights violations by the US government, in particular during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Manning has suffered from mental health problems during her imprisonment, and has been subjected to prolonged solitary confinement. ARTICLE 19 has long advocated for an end to this unjust sentence and the need to provide adequate protection to whistleblowers who disclose information in the public interest.
Edward Snowden leaked classified information in 2013 exposing the US government’s mass surveillance programme, which amounted to a disturbing breach of the rights to freedom of expression and privacy. He has fled the US, but is certain to face similar prosecution should he return.
“Chelsea Manning’s commutation is one step on the road to the protection of whistleblowers and the public’s right to information. However, to truly show its commitment to this essential right, the US must now act for the protection of Edward Snowden. Crucially, the US government must seek to implement protections for whistleblowers, who play an essential role in democratic, open societies, and prioritise investigating exposed human rights violations above criminalising the messenger,” said Hughes.
International human rights law sets out states’ obligations to protect freedom of expression and information under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which the US is party. Freedom of information is essential to the protection of human rights, transparent government and democratic accountability. While states are able to withhold information for valid national security reasons, restrictions on the right to information on this basis must be proportionate. National security cannot be used as a justification for preventing disclosures of illegalities or wrongdoing by governments, no matter how embarrassing.
In addition to this, international standards stipulate that whistleblowers who reveal serious wrongdoings in the public interest should benefit from full legal protection, as long as they have acted in good faith and with the reasonable belief that the information they have disclosed is substantially true and is evidence of wrongdoing. This protection should be granted even when the disclosure might be in breach of the law or a condition of employment. ARTICLE 19 has previously called for the improved protection of whistleblowers in the US under these standards, and in accordance with the recommendations set out in the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression’s 2015 report on the issue.
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