Transparency project aims to keep Appalachia honest

A new project aims to shine a light on corporate and government wrongdoing in Appalachia while helping to start similar transparency initiatives in other communities.

Honest Appalachia offers a secure website and a post-office box where whistleblowers can anonymously leak documents to the public without fear of reprisal. Co-founder Jim Tobias, a University of Pennsylvania-trained journalist, came up with the idea after witnessing the power of WikiLeaks to expose wrongdoing at an international level. His vision came to life this week with the help of about a half-dozen other freelance reporters, computer programmers and transparency activists.

"We were inspired to create something similar to WikiLeaks with a more local focus," Tobias says.

The founding members chose Appalachia as their focus because most of them have close ties to the region. They also thought a transparency project would be useful in such a rural region, with many communities under-served by the media. While Appalachia officially stretches from southern New York to northeastern Mississippi, Honest Appalachia will initially focus its outreach in seven states along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains: Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina.

"Because Appalachia is so rural and isolated, politicians and corporations too often go unobserved," Tobias says. "A site like this could help hold them accountable."

Honest Appalachia will not simply publish any documents it gets but will vet them carefully to ensure they're genuine. The project aims to be objective and nonpartisan in its selection of leaks for publication, and it will work closely with journalists throughout the region to bring attention to its findings. In addition, the Honest Appalachia site is built on open-source code that others can use for free -- and the project staff wants to work with others to create similar projects in other communities.

The project is devoted to protecting whistleblowers' anonymity. The website allows users to download Tor, free software that conceals their identity through a worldwide volunteer network of servers. No one -- not even the project staff -- will know who the whistleblower is. That's especially important given that a recent study found a sharp increase in retaliatory actions against private employees who report wrongdoing.

"We're trying to take the risk out of whistleblowing," Tobias says.

Honest Appalachia is supported by private donors and a grant from the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that uses technology to make government more transparent and accountable. The project is also getting help from attorneys with the Center for Constitutional Rights, a nonprofit legal organization that grew out of the civil rights movement, and the National Lawyers Guild, a federation of progressive attorneys.