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Whistleblower stories: 12 inspiring individuals who safeguarded public interest by exposing misconduct

Illustration: Sheyda Sabetian

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Time and again, whistleblowers around the world have spoken up against the abuse of entrusted power to safeguard public interest from corruption, helping to save millions in public funds and protect people’s health and the environment. The scandals they regularly uncover – ranging from tax evasion schemes and official collusion with oil companies to fraudulent payments for non-existent work and misappropriation of climate protection funds – bring lasting changes and illustrate their importance in making our societies more transparent.

That’s why it’s vital that citizens everywhere have the means and knowledge to safely report wrongdoing. Reporting mechanisms provide an essential instrument for promoting accountability, transparency and inclusiveness, especially in high-risk areas such as public procurement, healthcare, environmental protection and interaction between business and politics. This can help prevent injustice, conflict, human rights abuses and environmental damage which disproportionately affect people who experience various forms of marginalisation.

Whistleblowers have a key role to play and they must be protected, not persecuted when they speak up. If citizens can come forward in confidence – knowing they will be heard and are safe from retaliation – they can help hold power to account for the common good.

The following stories showcase the impact of 12 inspiring whistleblowers, in varying circumstances, speaking up to safeguard the public interest.

Hungary: Exposing bribery in return for healthcare

Illustration by Sheyda Sabetian

From exposing fraud in the procurement of essential medicines and hospital infrastructure to illegal charges for the delivery of patient care, whistleblowers have helped defend the health sector worldwide in many different ways. In March 2023, for example, Transparency International Hungary’s Advocacy and Legal Advice Centre (ALAC) received a report from a whistleblower exposing a doctor in a private hospital who regularly requested “gratuities” from his patients, in addition to the standard fees for their medical care. The doctor, an anaesthetist, allegedly asked patients to put an extra 25,000 forint (around US$74) in their hospital room’s bedside table for him to collect.

In response, ALAC staff contacted the whistleblower to obtain their consent for the use of their personal data, then filed a complaint based on the report with the National Protection Authority. Officials were quick to open an investigation, informing Transparency International Hungary they were taking the necessary steps to address the claims. According to Transparency International’s 2021 Global Corruption Barometer – European Union, 18 per cent of people using public hospitals and clinics in Hungary had to pay a bribe during the previous 12 months, making healthcare delivery the sector at the highest risk of bribery in the country. The more people who blow the whistle on medical staff demanding bribes, the sooner Hungary’s people will receive the healthcare they’re entitled to.

Italy: A courageous stand for global health protection

Safe, accessible reporting channels, backed by guaranteed whistleblower protection, are particularly crucial for workers and beneficiaries involved in essential services and emergency response – people like Dr. Francesco Zambon. In 2020, as a World Health Organization (WHO) researcher, Dr. Zambon wrote a report during the COVID-19 outbreak on Italy’s pandemic preparedness, concluding that the country’s pandemic prevention plan failed to meet international guidelines. He reported facing immediate pressure from then-Assistant WHO Director Dr Ranieri Guerra to modify his findings. As a former Ministry of Health official, Guerra had been responsible at the time for updating Italy’s pandemic plan. Although the WHO published the report in May 2020, it was withdrawn the next day.

Dr. Zambon reported his concerns about Guerra’s potential conflict of interest through internal channels, but after being ignored, he spoke out publicly in December 2020. Three months later, facing professional isolation and demotion, he resigned. The alleged retaliation and the lack of whistleblower protection led Zambon to request an internal WHO review of his case – with support from civil society organisations, including Transparency International Italy. When this request was dismissed, he wrote to the WHO’s Global Board of Appeal in September 2021. In April 2022, the board awarded him moral damages and legal fees, recommending to the WHO Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus that Zambon’s allegations should be fully investigated. After much delay, in December 2022, Dr. Tedros – who was in charge of the final decision – rejected the appeal. Zambon has now filed an appeal to the Administrative Tribunal of the International Labour Organization – the labour court for international civil servants – defending his own rights, those of potential whistleblowers and the public the WHO serves.

Zambia: Improving transparency in use of COVID-19 funding

Illustration by Sheyda Sabetian

Whistleblowers have a vital role safeguarding emergency response programmes during crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Such programmes typically combine large financial flows with lower anti-corruption controls, to enable a swifter response. But this also undermines transparency and accountability, and makes it crucial for people to speak up safely and expose wrongdoing. In 2022, an emergency health worker recruited by Zambia’s Ministry of Health for a COVID-19 recovery project made an anonymous report to Transparency International Zambia’s ALAC. The whistleblower suspected corruption, since the ministry had not fully paid medical staff, even though it had received funding for the project from the World Bank.

To learn more, Transparency International Zambia hosted a meeting for medics from the project, who described underpayment for their first contract and non-receipt of statutory national pension and health insurance contributions. Also lacking payslips, they could not verify the amounts due and claim shortfalls. To quantify the problem, the chapter ran an online survey, with 97 responses – 17 per cent of emergency health workers – and submitted a report to the Ministry of Health, the National Public Health Institute and the World Bank. In response, the institute conducted a detailed staff audit and is now working to resolve the pay issues. Thanks to their anonymous colleague blowing the whistle, health workers should soon receive full pay for the lifesaving care they deliver.

Lebanon: Cleaning up corruption on the country’s longest river

Whistleblowers worldwide have often been on the frontline against the devastating effects of pollution. In Lebanon, residents living along the Litani river spoke up against raw sewage and industrial waste illegally being pumped into the water. This heavy pollution is linked to a steep rise of cancer in riverside settlements, especially among young people. In 2019, in the eastern town of Bar Elias alone, there were 600 cases among a population of 12,000. Despite ongoing complaints to the government, nothing changed. Some factory owners were powerful or had powerful connections, while others bribed officials to overlook their actions.

Residents of Bar Elias ultimately reported the situation to Lebanon’s ALAC. Transparency International's ALAC partnered with investigative journalists to carry out the first-ever aerial filming of the Litani river from source to estuary, documenting pollution flows. It also used surveys to identify the responsible parties. Through an access to information request, staff also discovered that in 2016, the government had allocated 1,100 billion liras (US$728 million) to have the Litani cleaned, but projects were not being implemented. Using the aerial footage, the LALAC team produced a striking documentary, causing a national outcry that finally prompted official action. The authorities sent legal warnings to numerous polluters and the Public Prosecutor’s office issued several warrants. Clean-up operations are now underway – showing that people can speak up against the abuse of power to protect public health and make a difference in the fight against corruption.

Russia: Speaking up to safeguard climate funding

Strong whistleblowing mechanisms are crucial to environmental protection, enabling people to report both the abuse of natural resources and the misuse of financial flows to address climate change. In 2018, Dmitry Ershov, a project manager at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), alerted international donors to serious misappropriation of funds at UNDP’s Moscow office. Ershov managed a US$10 million project funded by the Global Environment Facility to adapt energy efficiency standards to EU levels with the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. He claimed that the office lacked basic safeguards against fraud, with Russian government officials responsible for overseeing project funding routinely awarding contracts to relatives and associates, and recruiting unqualified staff.

After Ershov raised his concerns, officials expressed dissatisfaction with his performance and refused to renew his contract. Ershov alleges that managers at UNDP’s regional headquarters also dismissed his claims, implying that any irregularities were the Russian government’s responsibility. John O’Brien, reported his case to our chapter in Russia, which together with our Secretariat wrote to the UNDP and carried out advocacy on O’Brien’s behalf. O’Brien was eventually dismissed by the UNDP despite calls by Transparency International and civil society allies for the UNDP to uphold his right to safely report wrongdoing. Unsurprisingly, the final evaluation concluded the project failed to deliver any reductions to emissions. Yet with effective whistleblower protection measures in place, the UNDP could have addressed the corruption and made a positive impact against emissions.

Transparency International and allies have repeatedly urged the UN to improve whistleblower protections to prevent loss of funds due to fraud and corruption instead of supporting those in need.

Serbia: Taking a stand for transparent procurement

Illustration by Sheyda Sabetian

By identifying and reporting wrongdoing in public procurement, whistleblowers play a key role in ensuring public funds are not diverted by private interests and are used fairly and efficiently. In Serbia, an engineer from a local government enterprise discovered that without his knowledge, the company had awarded two contracts in the division he managed to the same supplier. Neither of the jobs involved a tender, and payment for one was made in advance despite the work never being carried out. After filing an internal whistleblowing report to no effect, the engineer made a criminal complaint to the public prosecutor – which was blocked by networks of contacts between the judiciary and local authorities. The public prosecutor's response was delivered to him at work in an open envelope, and he was swiftly transferred to another office with a lower salary. Suspecting retaliation for his whistleblower reports, he contacted the ALAC at Transparency International Serbia.

The ALAC staff quickly helped him file for whistleblower protection in court and asked for reinstatement to his previous job and salary. Transparency International Serbia gathered the documentation through an access to information request, and their legal specialists drafted the whistleblower protection application with their expert opinion during the court hearing. The verdict is now overdue, even though the law stipulates that whistleblower protection procedures are urgent – offering a vital safety net for people like the engineer, who take a stand for transparent and accountable use of public funds.

Nigeria: Halting corrupt payments for work not done

Whistleblowers often have insider knowledge that’s vital to expose favouritism and nepotism which would otherwise go unchallenged. In 2018, a retired army officer made a confidential report to Transparency International Nigeria’s ALAC exposing a military Director of Chaplain Services for Lagos State who was receiving his full salary, but not carrying out his work. The director had suffered a serious accident two years prior and not been to his office since, nor had he been retired as medically unfit, which is in compliance with army regulations. Instead, he continued holding the same post that he occupied for 13 years due to his connections – despite army policy stating that the appointment should last a maximum of 18 months.

Protecting the whistleblower’s identity, ALAC staff wrote to the Army Chief of Staff, the Military Secretary and the Minister of Defence, urging them to investigate. Receiving no response, they followed up with a reminder. The whistleblower soon reported that the army had opened an investigation and confirmed in February 2019 that the Director of Chaplain Services had finally retired according to army protocol and that a successor was appointed. Thanks to the whistleblower’s report, the long-running corruption ended and work that is paid by the public purse is now being delivered instead.

Luxembourg: Luxleaks whistleblower finally vindicated by European Court of Human Rights

In countless cases, whistleblowers are essential for defending the public interest – leaving a lasting legacy when they do. In February 2023, the European Court of Human Rights reaffirmed the vital role of whistleblowers by ruling in favour of Raphaël Halet, who was prosecuted and convicted for disclosing documents to investigative journalist Edouard Perrin in 2012. Employed by international accountants PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC), Halet and fellow employee Antoine Deltour helped expose aggressive corporate tax avoidance schemes developed by PwC for multinational clients in Luxembourg. Known as the Luxleaks scandal, their revelations showed that companies saved billions in taxes by channelling hundreds of billions of dollars through the country – yet all three were prosecuted for breaching corporate secrecy. Throughout their trials, which took them all the way to the Luxemburg highest court, Transparency International issued press releases in support of the whistleblowers. In the end, Halet was convicted and ordered to pay a criminal fine of €1,000 – the only one of the three defendants whose conviction was upheld.

He took his case to the European Court of Human Rights, which ultimately found that the public interest in Halet’s disclosure outweighed any detrimental consequences, and that his rights had been violated. The court’s ruling stated that Halet’s revelations made “an essential contribution” to the “public debate on the tax practices of multinational companies”. The judgement is an important victory for speaking up in the public interest and reinforces the principle that whistleblowing is not a crime, but rather, a powerful tool for upholding integrity. The case also helped prompt the European Commission (EC) to finally put forward the EU Whistleblowing Directive adopted in 2019. The EC cited Luxleaks as one of the scandals that showed that “whistleblowers can play an important role in uncovering unlawful activities that damage the public interest and the welfare of our citizens and society.”

Palestine: Blocking the flow of corporate tax evasion

By highlighting widespread abuses that might otherwise remain undetected, whistleblowers can drive legal and systemic changes that benefit all of society. In Palestine, Transparency International’s ALAC received an anonymous report from a business owner exposing widespread use of accounting programmes that enable tax evasion. The ALAC investigation found that the programmes allow companies to create fictitious accounting groups with inaccurate average sales volumes that are lower than actual sales volumes. The companies submit the financial reports of the fictitious groups to the Ministry of Finance to pay less value-added tax (VAT), hiding their real sales figures via invisible paths in the accounting programmes that can only be accessed internally. As VAT provides the largest tax contribution to the state treasury, the scheme has resulted in serious revenue losses for the Palestinian people during the 15 years that companies have used the software.

To end the losses, Transparency International Palestine wrote to the Minister of Finance informing them of the fraud, copying the country’s Anti-Corruption Commission. In response, the commission informed ALAC staff that it had made recommendations to the Ministry of Finance to tackle tax evasion, in particular VAT fraud. These include specifying the accounting programmes companies must use to submit sales information, and enhanced auditing processes. The ministry is reviewing the measures in preparation for their adoption. Thanks to one businessperson speaking up against widespread wrongdoing, the Palestinian treasury stands to gain revenue that is vital for funding much-needed public services.

Pakistan: Exposing collusion between oil companies and officials

Illustration by Sheyda Sabetian

Every year, whistleblowers around the world protect millions of dollars’ worth of public funds, which are vital for providing essential services such as education, healthcare and infrastructure. In 2022, Transparency International Pakistan’s ALAC received a whistleblower complaint highlighting official collusion with two private oil companies, costing the state 1.13 billion rupees (US$3.9 million). Under Pakistani law, oil companies must pay royalties of 12.5 per cent of production value, collected by the federal government and paid to the province where the well-head is situated. The whistleblower highlighted that the Ministry of Energy had issued a directive ordering the oil company, SPUD Energy to pay outstanding royalties of 835 million rupees (US$2.9 million) but alleged that SPUD had not been forced to pay, while another producer, the Frontier Holding Company, had also failed to pay royalties worth 303 million rupees (US$1.1 million).

Protecting the whistleblower’s identity, Transparency International Pakistan wrote to the Prime Minister asking the regulators to investigate and recover the outstanding amounts. When the Director General of Petroleum Concessions responded in January 2023 that it was provincial matter, not a federal one, Transparency International Pakistan wrote to the Prime Minister again. The chapter pointed out that the Director General’s response contradicted the Ministry of Energy directive to SPUD and highlighted his inaction to recover the outstanding amount. Four days later, the Prime Minister’s office instructed the Secretary of the Petroleum Division to ensure recovery of the royalties within two weeks. In February 2023, the Director General informed Transparency International Pakistan that the Treasury had received the royalties from both companies – to be used in creating vital resources for the people of Pakistan.

Montenegro: Demanding integrity from anti-corruption officials

Whistleblowers call out corruption in diverse contexts – sometimes even within the very institutions that are supposed to fight it. In 2022, a whistleblower informed the ALAC run by MANS, Transparency International’s partner in Montenegro, that managers at the country’s Agency for Prevention of Corruption (APC) had granted a Serbian software company illegal access to private data on Montenegrin public officials. MANS’ investigation concluded that APC paid the software company almost €250,000 (around US$273,000) to develop a database – but instead of giving it sample data to work with, the agency had violated Montenegrin law by forwarding personal data to a foreign company. MANS informed the Agency for Protection of Private Data, which carried out a control visit that verified the whistleblower’s report and ordered APC to terminate the contract.

The whistleblower also reported the illegal use of APC vehicles by the agency’s director, including purchase of a luxury car which the director used for private purposes, replacing the government licence plates with civil ones. In response, MANS launched a public campaign highlighting the abuse and submitted a criminal complaint against the director in February 2023. This case highlights whistleblowers’ vital role in exposing wrongdoing in public institutions – even those specifically designed to promote integrity.

Nepal: Ensuring public funds deliver for school students

From international law to communities’ everyday lives, whistleblowers drive positive change at all levels. In early 2022, Transparency International Nepal’s ALAC received a whistleblower report that the construction of a new building at Banskharka Secondary School had been left unfinished. However, the former school principal and management committee had allegedly released payment to the contractor and given clearance on the completion of work. Seeing as that was not true, local community members asked the school for information, but received no further details.

Transparency International Nepal quickly established that the construction was incomplete and sent evidence to the local education office and the central government body that funded the work, calling for urgent action. In response, officials asked the school to provide contractual details of the project. At a subsequent stakeholders’ meeting, the new school principal and management committee agreed to oversee the completion of the building within six months. In January 2023, Transparency International Nepal carried out a joint technical evaluation of the new building with local and central education officials, observed by school representatives and local stakeholders who all agreed the completed work was satisfactory, therefore, enabling the school’s students to start benefitting from additional resources.

These cases show that people speaking up, with the right support, can help fight corruption and mitigate repercussions from administrative misconduct and abuse of power. The positive change they can bring creates a snowball effect, making it easier for others to speak up as well. Together, we can build a future where safe and robust whistleblowing laws are put in place and effectively implemented everywhere.

Until then, Transparency International’s Advocacy and Legal Advice Centres (ALACs) are here to help. No one needs to report corruption alone. Across the world, ALACs act to ensure people reporting wrongdoing are kept safe and that their stories help bring justice. We will also keep pushing for legal protection, so that whistleblowers can safely expose and help prevent corruption, ultimately building integrity across our societies.

Join us on World Whistleblowers Day, 23 June, to celebrate the people who bravely speak up against wrongdoing and give special recognition to the crucial role they play in the fight for a corruption-free world.

Transparency International’s European ALACs are supported by Speak Up Europe, an EU-funded project aiming to prevent corruption in high-risk areas in the EU by empowering individuals to speak up about misconduct to public, private and civil society organisations that can take action.