There are plenty of dodgy things going on in Africa, and far too few journalists around to expose them all. In many instances, the truth behind fishy elections and shady arms deals is only revealed through the bravery of ordinary people who tell us what is actually going on. Whistleblowing is a dangerous business, however, and whistleblowers need all the help they can get. A new online platform should make at least one stage of this process a little easier, and safer. By SIMON ALLISON.
If Edward Snowden taught us anything, it’s that our governments are watching us: all the time, and in ways we can’t even imagine. This makes it exceptionally difficult to keep secrets. Ironically, it also makes it difficult – and dangerous – to release them.
The art of whistleblowing has always been fraught with danger. As a rule, no one likes it when their dirty laundry is aired in public, and some will go to extraordinary measures to silence any who would attempt to do so. Take South Africa, for instance, where the infamous Secrecy Bill has come under fire for cracking down on whistleblowers.
In the digital age, whistleblowers are more vulnerable than ever before. Without a high degree of tech savvy, it is difficult to operate anonymously online, making it easy for governments – and even corporations, at time – to trace any leaks to the source.
“Quite often, as I have experienced in Angola, critical sources shy from journalists for fear of being identified,” said Rafael Marques de Morais, the investigative journalist and editor of Maka Angola, in comments to the Daily Maverick.
Enter afriLeaks. The new website is a platform for anyone who wishes to disclose sensitive information securely and anonymously, and was in trial mode last week while the team behind it tweaked and assessed it for ease of use.
It’s run by an alliance of African news organisations, and designed by the African Network of Centers for Investigative Reporting (ANCIR) in collaboration with the Hermes Center for Transparency and Digital Human Rights (who also developed globaLeaks and pubLeaks). “We’ve designed a system that helps you to share these materials while protecting your own identity, making it very hard to identify you as the source of the leak,” claims afriLeaks in its promotional blurb.
For the modern investigative journalist, afriLeaks is a vital tool. “I can still remember [when] people were inherently distrustful of doing things online,” said Phillip de Wet, associate editor of the Mail & Guardian, one of afriLeaks’s media partners. “There was point in the late 90s and early noughties when you couldn’t convince people to buy things online…at some point this shifted, without us knowing it, that people feel more secure in the online space. So while we may still want to encourage people to leak stuff offline, where it is arguably more secure and safer, they want to do so online rather, so we kind of have to make the online option available to them.”
But developing sophisticated online tools to protect content and identity isn’t easy. Even harder is to keep the technology current. “The tricky bit is to keep up with the threat, because once you’ve built [a platform] you have to be plugged into the security scene and constantly refining and updating it to be cognizant of new threats, and new opportunities and technologies that can enhance it,” said de Wet. (Disclosure: Phillip de Wet was the founding deputy editor of Daily Maverick)
The Daily Maverick took afriLeaks on a test run to see how easy it was to use (although the team at ANCIR is still fine-tuning it). The interface is straightforward, and each step of the submission process comes with detailed warnings about associated risks. The most important part of the process was to download the ultra-secure, ultra-anonymous Tor browser – using Chrome, afriLeaks could guarantee that the content would remain confidential, but not the anonymity of the user.
Users also must choose to which of the 19 media partners to submit their documents (although only five of these currently appear as options during the actual submission process). Unlike Wikileaks, which publishes content directly, afriLeaks acts as a bridge between whistleblowers and media outlets or NGOs. “Documents shared on afriLeaks form the beginning of a journalistic inquiry, instead of being shared directly on the web,” the site says.
afriLeaks media partners include some of Africa’s most respected publications, such as South Africa’s Mail & Guardian, Uganda’s Daily Monitor, Mozambique’s @Verdade, Maka Angola, Zambian Watchdog and the Africa Report. The hope is that afriLeaks will help them to hold their governments and societies to account. DM