Czech Journalists, Whistleblowers Slow to Use Secure Dropboxes During COVID-19

The COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic hit the Czech Republic as fears built that Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, battling corruption claims, would use the health crisis to consolidate power as his Hungarian counterpart Viktor Orban did.

It didn’t happen, because of an independent judiciary, and not long after anger rose when Defense Minister Lubomir Metnar proposed Babis should take control of the country should Parliament and the government be indisposed, which the Premier rejected without reducing suspicions.

Still, in that atmosphere, journalists and whistleblowers haven’t fully gone after reporting wrongdoing as the multi-billionaire populist Babis has, like Orban, skated above the fray.

The Czech Republic has no special whistleblowing act providing rules and protections for whistleblowers thus far, nor has there been widespread use of secure digital dropboxes to let journalists and their sources communicate safely.

Those are being made available through the European Union-funded Expanding Anonymous Tipping Technology (EAT) project.

“The project implementation has been running two years, and the creation of the EAT platform took a year. But the communication safety doesn´t seem to be considered the issue,” said Lenka Svobodová, former director of the NGO Oživení, which works on conflict of interest cases as well as good governance and to aid whistleblowers.

The group is also one of the NGO partners in the EAT program, the technical infrastructure of which is provided by GlobaLeaks’ open-source, free software. 

The technical platform enables secure and anonymous whistleblowing initiatives and was  developed by the Hermes Center for Transparency and Digital Human Rights, an Italian-based NGO supporting freedom of speech online.

“We are running GlobLeaks since 2015 but we had a different layout and different function from the EAT project,” said Svobodová.

The software empowers anyone, even those without technical skills, to easily set up and maintain a whistleblowing platform to protect themselves in a time when some governments and businesses want to ferret out people reporting wrongdoing in order to hush it up.

The pandemic struck as European Union lawmakers accused Babiš’ of directing bloc funds into one of his companies. The New York Times in November, 2019 said it amounted to $79 million, but the furor was sidelined during the health crisis.

Svobodová said that the NGO had discussions with number of municipalities and public agencies explaining how EAT and GlobaLeaks works but still found it difficult to win a real intention to implement it. 

As the Draft Law on Whistleblowing is being currently discussed, potential participants are in wait-and-see mode. Thus they are reluctant to launch an EAT platform until they can see the content of the law that the government finally plans to pass. 

Oživení  Chairman Marek Zelenka, who studied law at the University of Prague and the University of Passau in Germany so brings legal framework expertise to the anti-corruption fight, said that despite the ongoing stories about corruption allegations and now the pandemic, there’s been no rush to investigate.

“We don’t see an increase in receiving tips by GlobaLeaks. Unfortunately, we are still the only ones who use GlobaLeaks in the Czech Republic. Journalists are not using it yet.” This limits their options and protection, as well as that of sources.

Supply Chain Selection Integrity During COVID-19

“They are still not educated in cybersecurity. Maybe in the Czech Republic we don’t fear our security services as much as in Russia and Belarus and Romania and so on  – but now journalists are much more aware of the need for cybersecurity,” he said.

Zelenka said on May 21, 2019 the Ministry of Justice got proposals for new registrations for whistleblowers and GlobaLeaks and will put together legislation that could provide incentives for those fearful of reprisals.

“There were nurses and doctors reporting shortages (of COVID-19 equipment) and what happened with them was retaliation from the politicians,” he said.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted in Czechia the importance of whistleblowers to defend the public interest, particularly regarding the integrity of supply chains and selection of suppliers.

Without safe channels, such as secure digital drop boxes, those who disclose may be less willing to step forward.

There have been opportunities for investigative reporting and for whistleblowers to work hand in hand during the pandemic in important public interest reporting. Examples include when reports surfaced that nearly 80 percent of 150,000 portable, quick coronavirus test kits China delivered to the Czech Republic were faulty, said the Czech news site Expats.cz.

Svobodová said that journalists pointed out irregularities in licensing of health products and strange relations between politicians and chosen Chinese suppliers. 

She added that, “The journalists have done a good job and I’m not aware of any information which would suggest journalists would be under certain pressure not to publicize certain information – although they are under pressure all the time – but I’m not aware of anything related to the COVID-19 crisis.”

Svobodová studied Public and Social Policy at the Charles University of Prague, and has worked to promote transparency in public administration and sustainable development and supporting whistleblowers.

Through their work, and now with EAT, she said that, “People are now aware of the possibilities … it’s pretty easy,” to use the platform, although a wariness remains about being tracked.

“Whistleblowers expect entire support, not only during the story (a journalist is writing) but afterward, and that wasn’t something journalists would offer because it’s not their job,” she said. Oživení is to set up a centre for whistleblowers in cooperation with other NGOs to provide various form of support (psychological, social, legal etc.)

“If journalists would use secure connections, they might get more information. The awareness of cybersecurity is rather low in the Czech Republic, including the journalists. There are easy ways to communicate in a secure way online, we have to raise awareness of the risks and possibilities,” she added.

TOR is free and open-source software for enabling anonymous communication through browsers such as Brave and Tor Browser. It makes tracking someone, and thus identifying them, difficult. 

This privacy-enhancing tool is available as an option while using EAT platform or GlobaLeaks, but those making disclosures don’t always take it up.

“Many times, they won’t use TOR,” she said illustrating the low awareness.

One concern about trying to reach out to get journalists, whistleblowers and others

wanting security in communications to use the GlobaLeaks secure anonymous digital dropboxes is the pandemic that has people focussed on health and the economy.

“Companies are focused on different areas and some are basically trying to find a way to survive. So it makes it more difficult concerning the timing to offer the platform,” said Svobodová.

The Czech Draft Law on whistleblowing is considered to be insufficient when it comes to the security of reporting channels, she said. The e-mail will likely be considered to be safe enough. 

However, reflecting the move toward more awareness of whistleblower protection more generally as signified by the coming Draft Law, Český rozhlas (public Czech radio broadcasting) is launching the SecureDrop shortly to address the communication security issue.