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Being a whistleblower in Portugal

Transparency Int'l

João Dias Pacheco is a lawyer and a member of the Board of Directors of Transparency International Portugal. He was one of the whistleblowers in the case in which former officials of the water utility of Coimbra are suspected of corruption. For more than ten years, whistleblowing has dominated his life, and recently, he says, he has felt “persecuted and the target of provocations and threats both inside and outside of work, without great hope for a good outcome.”

To fight corruption and related crimes, strong justice institutions are vital, but not enough. Citizens, too, are an important factor. They need to have easy access to relevant public information that allows them to notice and report possible misconduct. This information, I believe, is not lacking, and neither is the awareness among many citizens that corruption and other economic crimes should not go unpunished.

As one of these citizens, I think it is fundamental that people are encouraged to speak out, and do not feel alone when they face repercussions by those who they have denounced.

Portuguese Law states that public administration workers must not suffer negative consequences if they choose to report misconduct. Sadly, the reality is quite different, as any whistleblower will experience. Many of them don’t have any legal training, so they are often overwhelmed by the negative reactions and retaliations they confront, and don’t know how to react. They think that they have to endure the retaliation for a good cause, although they might not understand why.

Waiting in uncertainty

It is this state of impotence in which the whistleblowers remain, this limbo that surrounds them, that leads many of them to question the things they have done — not only their dedication to public service, but above all the impetus to denounce the misconduct that has come to their notice.

Many might feel that they were left at the mercy of justice, in which they have to believe. But often their determination crumbles in the face of the humiliation and shaming they are facing. It’s a rough — I would even say surreal — experience, and the time spent waiting for justice is terribly long.

Months, even years, can go by with the case on the “shelf”, with little or no progress being made on it. The whistleblowers wait for justice to be brought to those who have turned their lives into the torment it is. They long for the truth to be applauded, and for lies and deception to be recognized by suitable judges.

It’s a long wait, and whistleblowers often pay with their health. Even though they try to hide their suffering, it is hard to do so.

Lacking protection by the judicial system

How is it possible that those who denounce misconduct must hide or leave? How is it accepted that the accused, often in a position of power over the complainant, continue to exercise their functions and authority over the whistleblowers? And what about those who, while not accused themselves, carry out the reprisals imposed by the one who appointed them?

It seems to me that the justice system leaves to much space for retaliation by the denounced and those who work for them. The retaliation is seen in gestures, words and attitudes. The court admits this scenario. And what does it do? Protect whistleblowers? Move away the accused from the crime scene, or at least separate them from the whistleblowers?

No. It allows the humiliation of whistleblowers and leaves them on their own.

The justice system that encourages each citizen to denounce the crimes of corruption is the same that causes whistleblowers to leave work with a medical certificate, as they see their professional career collapse and their state of (mental) health worsen, while their waiting for progress in their investigations.

Change is needed

Some whistleblowers might feel like confronting their attackers personally, but they should always use the legal mechanisms at their disposal. Turning to the media and appealing to the conscience of other citizens can help, too.

But protection and support of whistleblowers must not be left to themselves alone. Things need to change. The justice system cannot abandon those who chose to turn to it, especially when it comes to sound management of public affairs. Something must be done for these people, and it needs to be more than words. New practices to protect whistleblowers are needed — for the good of all.

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