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Whistleblowing v. leaking: What is the difference?

The name Julian Assange is in the news once again. He is most well-known for founding WikiLeaks, which exposes human rights violations and corruption worldwide. Many of the news stories about Assange and his recent arrest refer to him as a whistleblower.

However—as the name of his organization would suggest—the term that best fits his situation is leaking. His website allows people to leak information to the public.

The way the news uses the terms "leaking" and "whistleblowing" interchangeably has led many people to question: is leaking truly the same as whistleblowing?


Leaking v. whistleblowing

The short answer to that question is no. Leaking and whistleblowing are not interchangeable words or actions. Even the definitions are not the same:

  • Leaking: The act of releasing or revealing confidential information to the media or public.
  • Whistleblowing: The act of informing the authorities or reporting unethical or illegal actions within a workplace or entity.

These definitions may seem similar. However, the legal concepts and repercussions for both actions are completely different.

Whistleblowing is a protected act

The Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989 (WPA) does precisely what its title implies. It provides federal protections for employees or external parties who report:

  • Legal violations
  • Fraud or misuse of funds
  • Workplace hazards
  • Abuses of employee rights

Even if leaking exposes the same dangers, the law does not protect anyone who leaks information. In fact, most of the time leaking is against the law. It can violate legal nondisclosure and confidentiality agreements.

So, the leakers suffer legal consequences as well. And without the protections of the WPA, employers are often the ones who can take legal action.

A mistake of terms can have a large impact

The fact that many news sources do use the terms interchangeably seems to be casting a negative shadow on whistleblowing. A recent Washington Post article analyzed five myths about whistleblowing and determined that labeling leaking and whistleblowing as the same act could threaten the legitimacy of whistleblowing in the future.

This negative impact would likely not affect federal regulations or protections for whistleblowers. However, it may jeopardize the way the public perceives whistleblowers.

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