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A vital chance for whistleblower protection

The European Parliament building in Brussels
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Transparency Int'l

Life is getting safer for Europeans who expose wrongdoing. In 2019, following an extensive public campaign, the European Union adopted a Directive for Whistleblower Protection, setting minimum standards of protection for whistleblowers reporting breaches of EU law in certain areas.

This is good news for everyone. Until now, Europeans have lived with widely varying levels of whistleblower protection. The new directive encourages people to speak out against wrongdoing that might otherwise go undetected, helping uphold fair play and integrity – so all of society benefits.

The directive protects whistleblowers in a wide range of positions, as well as individuals who help them. It prohibits retaliation, safeguards their identities in most circumstances, and offers them several reporting avenues. Yet worrying loopholes remain.

Among the most serious are that not all whistleblowers speaking in the public interest are protected. Most whistleblowers exposing bribery and abuse of power in politics, the health care system, the police, the courts and public prosecution services, or the education sector wouldn’t be covered. Yet many Europeans consider corruption widespread in these sectors.

Nor are whistleblowers reporting concerns about occupational safety covered. The coronavirus pandemic shows how much this matters. People speaking out about the lack of personal protective equipment wouldn’t be protected by the directive – people like Polish midwife Renata Piżanowska. In March 2020, fresh from working shifts wearing a home-made mask of paper towel and rubber bands, she warned on Facebook that medical staff lacked masks, overalls and gloves. In response, the hospital director fired her.

A chance to close the loopholes

EU members have until December 2021 to pass the directive into national law. This is a vital opportunity for countries to introduce whistleblower protection legislation that goes beyond the directive’s requirements and close these loopholes. If they don’t, many whistleblowers will still lack adequate protection – and Europe’s people will lose out.

Comprehensive whistleblower protection would encourage more people like Konstantin Ivanov, a traffic police officer in Bulgaria, to expose corruption. In 2011, Ivanov alerted Interior Ministry inspectors to a scheme in which officers were forbidden from stopping cars with certain number plates. These belonged to companies and individuals that donated money to the ministry.

When inspectors took no action, Ivanvov contacted a national television network. His revelations caused a scandal. During three months in early 2011, the ministry had received donations of €3.3 million (US$3.6 million) from companies and individuals – including people under investigation.

The ministry didn’t deny this. Instead, officials falsely accused Ivanov of multiple breaches of rules during his 20-year career. Facing extreme harassment and threats from the ministry to sue him, he resigned.

Although only two colleagues dared confirm Ivanov’s story, public supporters quickly founded a Facebook group which petitioned the European Parliament on his behalf. As a result, the European Commission covered the donations scheme in its monitoring report on Bulgaria in July 2011, concluding that the donations threatened to undermine unbiased police investigations. Bulgaria’s prime minister subsequently banned secret payments, establishing instead a public online register of donations.

Ensuring new laws protect all whistleblowers

Despite this gain, Ivanov remained unemployed and his family suffered. With no whistleblower protection law, he lacked legal recourse to seek reinstatement or compensation for damage to his career and reputation.

If Bulgaria transposes the EU Directive without widening its coverage to include all breaches of law, whistleblowers like Ivanov will still lack protection. But by enhancing the directive when passing it into law, EU states can change the system, making people feel safe and supported to speak up – with major benefits across society.

Although the UK is no longer an EU member, a whistleblower case relating to the country’s 2016 Brexit referendum shows the importance of having whistleblower laws with a broad scope. After the referendum, volunteer Shamir Sanni revealed to The Observer that the Vote Leave campaign had broken electoral rules to gain an advantage in the closely fought race.

Whistleblowing to safeguard democracy

Two weeks before polling day, when Vote Leave were close to the legal campaign spending limit, they received a donation of £1 million (US$1.2 million). Aware that this would break regulations, they donated £625,000 (US$670,000) to BeLeave, a pro-Brexit youth group. But Sanni quickly realised that BeLeave wasn’t free to use the money. Instead, it was spent on social media advertising for Vote Leave. Although a committed Eurosceptic, Sanni felt duty-bound to speak out.

As a result, Vote Leave was referred to the UK Electoral Commission and found guilty in 2018 of breaking electoral law. But Sanni paid a high price. Alienated by fellow campaigners, he was fired from his job at the pro-Brexit TaxPayers’ Alliance and outed as gay in a statement from the prime minister’s office – a breach of privacy which he explained was particularly traumatic for a British-Pakistani Muslim.

Sanni emphasised that the scandal was not just about the referendum, but about protecting democracy. Yet even with so much at stake, a case like this wouldn’t be covered by the EU directive. Similarly, someone in the position of the US Ukrainegate whistleblower wouldn’t be covered. The allegations that President Trump abused his office by attempting to pressure Ukraine’s president into investigating one of Trump’s political rivals led to impeachment proceedings against the US president.

Passing national laws that give full protection

Cases like these show it is vital that when EU countries pass the directive into national law, they go beyond its requirements, closing loopholes and ensuring comprehensive protection of all whistleblowers.

People need to know they have full legal protection if they speak up, so they feel safe enough to raise concerns. Without such laws, wrongdoing can go unreported and citizens lose out. That’s why Europe’s people must press national lawmakers to pass whistleblower legislation that surpasses the directive’s provisions – including covering all breaches of law in all areas.

Whistleblowers are essential, often revealing vital information in the public interest. Passing the EU Whistleblower Directive into national law offers a chance to establish full legal protection and a culture of support for speaking up. It’s an opportunity that countries – and their people – can’t afford to miss.