2. Dezember 2014

That tiny device, producing a high-pitched, airy sound

What comes to your mind when you hear the word “whistleblowing”? A couple of months ago, I would have thought of the words “Edward Snowden”, “NSA”, “privacy”, “surveillance”, “detention”. I would have associated “whistleblowing” with something grand, spectacular. Something linked to the uncovering of massive wrongdoings at the highest levels of the armed forces, secret services or government, which had previously been held secret from the public.

I would certainly not have thought of the story of Katerini*, a public employee at the cleaning department of the Municipality of Syros (Greece), who spoke out about irregularities in the implementation of access to information laws in her city. As a result, her salary was reduced by 50%, and she was subjected to intense psychological pressure. I would not have thought of the two Irish police officers who, in 2014, drew public attention to an ongoing arbitrary termination of road traffic fines, which cancelled the records of certain police officers, judges and celebrities and cost the taxpayer around €1.5 million annually.

Unlike WikiLeaks or Snowden’s revelations, not all whistleblowing cases are high-profile. Most often, whistleblowers are people like you and me, who notice something going awry in their surroundings, and decide to report about it at a local or national level. A rather straightforward process? No. At the contrary: deciding to report corruption can be risky. Firstly, you may not live in a country that provides appropriate legal protection for witnesses who decide to speak up. Secondly, it may not be easy to find the right interlocutors or competent institutions that can deal with your request. Thirdly, you may find the culture you live in to be unsupportive of whistleblowing and defaming citizens speaking up against authorities.

But not being afraid to bring to light shady deals, daring to take an individual stand against vested interests for the public good – isn’t this actually the utmost expression of what it means to live in  a democracy? Hence I believe it deserves support, and this is why I am proud to be working for an organisation, Transparency International (TI), which takes this issue seriously. Through its Advocacy and Legal Advice Centres, established by the movement’s national chapters, TI provides free and confidential advice and assistance to victims, witnesses and whistleblowers in 60 countries. In 2013, an assessment conducted by TI revealed that only 4 out of 27 EU member states had solid legal frameworks for whistleblowers in place. Although this has improved in some cases over the past year, much remains to be done.

Working towards an enabling environment is no fancy business. It implies getting down into legal technicalities to ensure robust protection of whistleblowers from retaliation, shift the burden of proof to the employer, and massive advocacy efforts to convince public and private bodies to put in place accessible and reliable channels that can allow safe, secure, confidential and anonymous disclosures. But it can pay off: the G20 has recently included into its 2015-2016 Anti-Corruption Implementation Plan the commitment to conduct a self‐assessment of their whistleblowers protection frameworks in both the public and private sectors. That is a step into the right direction. 

At the end of the day, whistleblowing isn’t reserved to a few select individuals who have access to confidential information. We all carry an invisible whistle around our necks. We are all referees in the big democratic game. Whether and when we use that whistle, is a matter of personal responsibility. And courage. Like Márton*, who notified the police of petty corruption in his driving school in Hungary. Or Ayodele*, who turned to Niger’s Advocacy and Legal Advice Centre to share his concerns about his university, which penalised students refusing to pay bribes to pass their exams. You too carry one of those small invisible devices. The question is: Would you have what it takes to make use of it?

*all names have been changed