Whistleblowing in Europe: the time has come to tell a new story

Whistleblowing in Europe: the time has come to tell a new story

Toni Fernandes was the chief financial officer at an international telecommunications company in the UK. He began noticing that the managing director was submitting expense claims without any receipts, and that some of the payments were to clothing stores and a lawyer. Fernandes eventually discovered that his boss had improperly spent £316,000.

When Fernandes informed the company’s board of directors, he was immediately suspended and soon after fired. Putting to work the UK’s whistleblower protection law, Fernandes was awarded £239,000 by the UK Employment Tribunal. The managing director left the company.

Transparency International is often asked: what are some positive examples of whistleblowing? The short answer is: there are not enough.

The case of Toni Fernandes is commonly regarded as a positive one. The wrongdoing was exposed, the accused person left the company, and Fernandes received a six-digit compensation ­– the first of its kind, in fact, under the UK’s Public Interest Disclosure Act. Still, Fernandes lost his job.

Even though Fernandes lost something, the law was there to send a message to perpetrators of corruption that impunity for their actions was no longer a guarantee. Someone could now expose them, with the protection of the law.

New report: just four EU countries with advanced whistleblower laws

Cover of Whistleblowing in Europe report

Unfortunately, the UK is only one of four European Union countries with legal frameworks for whistleblower protection that are considered to be advanced, according to Whistleblowing in Europe, a report released today by Transparency International. The other 23 countries profiled in the report have partial, very limited or no whistleblower protections in place.

This poor performance leaves a vast majority of EU countries short of current standards, including those developed by Transparency International.

Why do all EU countries – and every country in the world – need laws to protect whistleblowers from retaliation and give them safe avenues to report wrongdoing?

One example is the government lawyer in Vienna who was fired after drawing attention to shady procurement practices at a public hospital. Another is the city employee in Narva, Estonia who was dismissed after exposing a network of politicians and business interests involved in contract irregularities.

And then there are the lawyers and administrative employees in Portugal who faced government indifference when they were threatened, fired or transferred for exposing wrongdoing.

After whistleblowers have exposed their sensitive information, many are subject to almost certain backlash from their supervisor, co-workers or friends. They look for ways to keep their job, their career, their reputation – and in some cases their sanity or even their lives.

Lack of whistleblower protections harms Europe

As Whistleblowing in Europe explains, the lack of strong whistleblower protections in Europe not only hurts whistleblowers who rightly expect not to be fired, demoted or harassed for reporting crimes. These shortcomings are also harming the citizens, the economy, the rule of law and the environment of Europe. When political corruption, financial misconduct and environmental crimes go undetected and unpunished, everyone loses.

Wrongdoing like this can only be stamped out with the help of whistleblowers. And these people can only blow the whistle if they no longer have to fear being punished.

Swift action is needed by all EU countries to pass new or strengthen their existing whistleblower laws. Anything short of absolute, loophole-free protection for whistleblowers would rob Europe of a valuable partner in fighting corruption: the people.

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