A conversation with Jimmy Tobias – Getting to Know Honest Appalachia
It is undeniable: the state of media is changing rapidly every single day. Our traditional modes of getting news via local newspapers and radio stations is being challenged and in many places is at severe risk. With the 24-hour news cycle, we all have to be more diligent than ever in paying attention to the kind of news we are receiving, and supporting.
With the massive attention that Wikileaks received last year, and continues to receive today, sharing sensitive information that whistleblowers work hard to uncover is significantly more dangerous. While Wikileaks opened the doors to information sharing and document exposing from whistleblowers it also highlighted their status and perceived threat: though whistleblowers are some societies’ unsung heroes, they are seen as terrorists and traitors by many people in positions of power. While I know this may sound like a dramatic statement, there is something wildly dramatic about devoting one’s life to exposing truths in the face of potential danger and legal threat.
At Kindle Project, the open sharing of information and news is something that we are passionate about. To this end, we were more than happy to invite the new start-up organization, Honest Appalachia, to be a part of our grantee community this spring.
Co-founded by Jimmy Tobias and Garrett Robinson, Honest Appalachia began in January of this year and its mission is to inspire whistleblowers from the Appalachian region to share information safely and anonymously. They are in the business of accountability by making sure that whistleblowers, who are devoted to uncovering injustices, corruptions and wrongdoings from corporations and government, can have a voice and one that is heard.
I had the chance to catch up with Jimmy Tobias to learn more about their work.
Kindle Project: Why Appalachia? What is happening in the Appalachians that calls for the need for whistleblowers to come forward?
Jimmy Tobias: It’s the region we knew best. I went to school in West Virginia and our team knew this region well. It’s rural and has a big history with extraction. This project would be helpful in this area. [Honest Appalachia] is a call for whistleblowers to come forward: the region has a history of extraction, and [has the heavy presence of] the coal industry. It’s such a heavily industrialized area. People are more vulnerable there as well. In West Virginia there are only two AP reporters to cover the whole region.
KP: Is it an issue of geography then? Rural areas not being given proper attention by the media, I guess it’s just not glamorous.
JT: Exactly. News media is changing and investigative journalists are losing their jobs. Media is in a strange place and rural areas are not glamorous to cover.
KP: We are very focused on issues of environmental and social justice. Are those the subject on which you’re receiving most of your submissions?
JT: We are a one-industry region in many ways. The coal economy is one of the pillars of our society, and to not have eyes on an industry that is massive and important seems dangerous. Now with hydraulic fracking becoming big it leaves people more vulnerable. The extraction industry, and as well as state and local government is what we’re looking at. There’s so much room for political corruption and collision. Being a watchdog of the government is the media’s traditional role and we’d like to be a part of that.
KP: What are the risks involved in sharing this kind of information? Both for the whistleblower and for you?
JT: The risks depend on the types of documents we get. We’re prepared to deal with local and federal corruption, as we are pretty prudent, and have good legal support. Ultimately, our number one goal is to keep peoples’ identities and First Amendment rights protected. The coal industry has a history of being rough with people who shine too much light on them. I think it’s a different world than it was 50 years ago and law and order still prevails in our country.
KP: What advice do you have for whistleblowers who want to share their info, but are too afraid of the risks?
JT: It really depends on their personal circumstances. Mail is a secure form of information delivery, as long as they keep their personal information off the document. It’s probably more secure online.
KP: Is it a strange experience to have relationships with anonymous sources?
JT: It depends on the type of document [submitted]. Part of what we’re trying to do is be a matchmaker for whistleblowers and appropriate journalists on a case-by-case basis.
KP: Have you had a lot of submissions already?
JT: We’ve had a lot. One interesting submission that the AP in West Virginia is looking at is a story about wasteful spending by the state/government. These are the kinds of stories we’re looking for. We don’t want personal grievances. We’re looking for well-documented issues of public interest.
KP: What has response been like from your local Appalachia community?
JT: There’s been a lot of positive feedback. But, the government of Pennsylvania criticized us one day on the radio. [You can read about this on the Honest Appalachia blog here]. Journalists and the AP in West Virginia have been great and very responsive as well.
KP: What kind of a community, if any, is being created through your site?
JT: We’re hoping we can build relationships with activists and journalists to create a community around online activism and journalism, and we hope that a community will coalesce amongst the site. We believe that such a community can develop via our presentations, and on our Facebook page/ blog.
KP: So, in building this community are you in touch with other media sources as well?
JT: We really want to establish a relationship with journalists. Our closest relationship is with AP, and we also know the people at Democracy Now, though we’re always looking to expand: we’re collecting names and numbers for other potential partners.
KP: Aside from journalists, are you aiming to broaden your community to include any other organizations as well? We’ve recently funded the Government Accountability Project (GAP), and they seem like natural allies for you. Do you have any plans to connect whistleblowers with legal advocates?
JT: Yes, we have some good legal contacts, and we’re familiar with GAP. They wrote about the Honest Appalachia launch and we re-tweet some of their stuff. [In addition, ] the Electronic Frontier Foundation has helped us navigate through some issues. We have some interesting legal contacts as well. We’re tapped in and would feel comfortable reaching out to GAP. Some attorneys have reached out and want to help.
KP: Why is the need for Honest Appalachia’s work important given Wikileaks already exists?
JT: Regional focus is a big piece of our work. Wikileaks focused on the big international issues. They’re also having a lot of troubles right now. If they disappear it would be good to have other sources in place for transparent media.
KP: On your site, you encourage people to start their own Honest X organization. Why should people do this? What is the best way to go about doing so? And how will Honest Appalachia facilitate this process?
JT: One of our major goals is to help these kinds of websites develop by sharing our platform and code, and offering technical help to anyone who wants to start one. We’re encouraging others to take our model and adapt it to make it their own, and we’ve already helped people in Finland and Switzerland to do so. We see ourselves as a part of the computer security, privacy movement.
KP: What kind of funding do you need in order to sustain Honest Appalachia?
JT: Whistleblowers need nothing beyond a secure computer and the courage to take a stand. As we expand, if we can’t get funding, we want to be able to shrink back to a low cost model. This spring we are doing an educational tour, running ads on Facebook and we can do all of this for very little. But, funding allows us to dream big and get paid.
Every person has a voice, and organizations such as Honest Appalachia are making it possible for these voices to be heard. Furthermore, they are allowing these voices to safely expose the often-damaging skeletons that corporations and states are hiding in their closets. This is why we are so committed to the work of Honest Appalachia. They are continuing to pave the way for whistleblowers to carry out their challenging and essential work.
Keep yourselves informed via their blog.