Honest Appalachia website aims to be localized WikiLeaks operation

Whistleblowers can post anonymously

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A couple of recent college graduates and a few of their associates this week launched Honest Appalachia , a website they hope will become a version of WikiLeaks for this part of the country.

Jim Tobias, 24, who graduated last year from the University of Pennsylvania, and his friend, Garrett Robinson, 22, a graduate of Oberlin College in Ohio, say their whistleblower site will be a place where people can anonymously submit information without fear of retaliation.

The site launched Tuesday. Nothing had been posted as of Thursday.

But Mr. Tobias, who splits his time between Charleston, W.Va., and Montana, where he works in the summers for a conservation nonprofit, said he's hopeful the site will take off within a few weeks.

"We've gotten pretty good response," he said. "Lots of journalists are interested. I think people are sort of intrigued."

A spokeswoman for the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., which gives grants for all manner of efforts devoted to government accountability, said Honest Appalachia is more than a site for dumping documents.

"This is a secure website," Gabriela Schneider said. "It's not a model where you just throw things out there. They're using the power of the web to reach a broader audience of people who might see problems in their home town and give them an opportunity to create accountability."

Honest Appalachia and sites like it, she said, are using technology to help citizens and journalists "amplify their voice and give them proper channels" to shine a light on wrongdoing.

A $5,000 grant for one year from the Sunlight Foundation contributes to Honest Appalachia's development as it reaches out to potential whistleblowers in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina.

Whistleblowers offering documents must download a software program that renders their computer anonymous. Mr. Tobias, who said he has worked as a freelance reporter for a few years, said he and his team of volunteers in West Virginia and Ohio will review submissions for authenticity and remove data that could be used to identify the sender before they post anything.

"We do our own analysis, we check everything," he said. "We also will work with reporters. We have a pretty solid understanding of the media landscape in this region."

The initial idea is to attract the attention of those working in government agencies in the tradition of WikiLeaks, which launched in 2006.

Mr. Tobias and Mr. Robinson, who handled the technical end of the site, chose this part of the country because Mr. Tobias has lived in Pennsylvania and West Virginia and Mr. Robinson lives in Ohio. Charleston is centrally located.

They also selected Appalachia because they feel the region is underserved by traditional media.

Mr. Tobias said Honest Appalachia is valuable because of the demise or downsizing of so many small-town newspapers that used to keep an eye on local and regional government in rural areas. Entire swaths of rural America are now without a daily newspaper, and those papers that still exist are limping by with skeleton crews unable to examine anything in much depth.

"We're trying to fill the gap left by the investigative reporters who are gone," Mr. Tobias said.

In addition to the Sunlight Foundation, Honest Appalachia has enlisted help from the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, a group that tries to expose government and corporate malfeasance.

But the road to online transparency has not been smooth.

WikiLeaks recently warned that it may shut down because of funding problems after the refusal for months of Visa, MasterCard and PayPal -- which together handle more than 90 percent of credit-card transactions -- to process any payments intended as donations for the group. And a former WikiLeaks collaborator recently left to launch his own site, OpenLeaks.

A knock-off developed by The New York Times, described as an "EZ Pass for leakers," has yet to materialize. Another imitation by The Wall Street Journal called WSJ Safehouse, launched in May, has been lambasted for what critics say are holes in its security safeguards.

Mr. Tobias said his site is secure and that he hopes it will become a model for similar sites. He also said it will adhere to a "strict journalistic ethic" by being objective and nonpartisan.

Torsten Ove: tove@post-gazette.com


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