David Dimitrov* knows first-hand how corruption can often hit very close to home, with drastic consequences for those with the courage to speak out.
As president of the local labour union in Skopje, North Macedonia, David worked hard to protect employee rights in his area. In 2016, he received concerning reports that the newly appointed director of the National Centre for Crisis Management was bypassing public sector employment procedures to appoint personal contacts to official posts. In 2017, David took action, publicly exposing the director of abusing his office and misusing the Centre’s funds. He also filed a criminal complaint with the Public Prosecutor’s Office.
David had hoped to spark a positive change. Instead, he found himself facing disciplinary action and allegations that he damaged the Centre’s reputation.
Luckily, David had heard of Transparency International's Advocacy and Legal Advice Centre (ALAC) in North Macedonia and contacted them for help.
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When our staff received David’s complaint, they asked the State Administration Inspectorate to investigate. They also made a submission to the Public Prosecutor’s Office. The unlawful appointments were revoked and the disciplinary proceedings against David were dropped.
This was a win for David, and for ordinary people in North Macedonia. His case led to a government programme to boost transparency. It also acted as a warning to unethical officials that decisive action would be taken against corruption.
Blowing the whistle during COVID-19
Not far from David, a similar case was unfolding last year in Serbia. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, Bojan Petrović* was an intern in a municipal administration there. He had repeatedly pointed out irregularities at work, such as political clientelism and misuse of public resources.
His reports were ignored. Instead, as lockdown began, he was told over the phone to stop coming to work and that his contract would not be extended.
Bojan discovered he was the only intern whose contract was not being renewed. He contacted his local ALAC for help. Our teams submitted a freedom to information request to the municipality on the number of interns employed during the first half of 2020, how long their internships were planned to last, and whether the pandemic would affect these plans. Not long after, Bojan’s internship was reinstated without explanation.
By blowing the whistle, people who witness wrongdoing can help protect lives, public finances and the planet. Yet too often, people are not empowered to speak up, and when they do, they often face retaliation. Without strong legal protection and support to safely speak up, whistleblowers and their families can experience personal, professional or legal attacks, harming their mental and even physical well-being. No one should suffer this way.
Sadly, the COVID-19 pandemic has triggered abuses of power around the world. In December 2020, an assessment of 196 countries found that the crisis had been used as a pretext to curtail civic freedoms.
Some examples can be subtle, but still dangerous. At the onset of the pandemic in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Ministry of Education and Culture of the Republic of Srpska asked employees to give up a proportion of their salaries to a Solidarity Fund for people hard hit by the crisis. Staff quickly realised that the Ministry was compiling lists of who had agreed or refused.
Alarmed that these lists could be used to coerce or discriminate against those who had not given up their earnings, employees leaked the story to the media. Our local ALAC notified the country’s Personal Data Protection Agency, who ruled the lists were unlawful and ordered the Ministry to destroy them. Extensive media coverage of the case spread the vital public message that people’s rights must and can be protected, even during emergencies.
Standing up for people’s rights
Abuses of power can come in many forms. Last March, the contracts of 20 staff at a leading Kosovan newspaper were suddenly terminated, allegedly due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The employees – two of whom were pregnant – complained to our local ALAC.
Our teams filed 29 complaints and initiated 9 lawsuits, prompting the newspaper to reinstate the two pregnant employees and to compensate the others.
Similarly, in spring 2020, the Republika Srpska government promised financial support to businesses forced to close due to the pandemic. But two months later, private kindergartens were suddenly told they were ineligible for financial support, leaving more than 400 staff without pay.
Through freedom of information requests, our local ALAC found proof that the kindergartens had been forced to close and were therefore entitled to support. After the ALAC lodged official complaints, local authorities delivered the promised funds for March and April – enabling essential childcare services for working parents to continue.
A positive snowball effect
All these cases show that people speaking up, with the right support, can successfully fight against corruption and abuse.
Examples of positive change create a snowball effect, making it easier for others to speak out too. Together, we can build a future where everyone’s rights are protected.
* Names have been changed
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