The brave individuals who report wrongdoing at work are vital for exposing corrupt schemes and actions. Countless lives and billions of dollars of public funds have been saved thanks to whistleblowers. Too often, however, they face retaliation after bringing corruption, fraud and financial malpractice to light. These attacks are sometimes professional, sometimes legal, and can even be directed against the whistleblower’s family, property or physical and mental well-being.
Many times, those who enact revenge on whistleblowers are able to get away with it because there aren’t sufficient measures in place to protect whistleblowers from retaliation.
But, is change around the corner?
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This year, we celebrate World Whistleblower Day, 23 June, with some serious wins for whistleblower protection already behind us in 2019, and some encouraging developments on the horizon.
In Europe, over half a billion people have been assured protection for reporting wrongdoing at work, thanks to the EU directive which was agreed in March. Member States have until October 2021 to transpose the Directive into national laws. After that, there will finally be a coherent set of standards across the EU, which will guarantee that people who speak out aren’t punished for their bravery.
The EU directive has a lot of strengths, thanks in large part to the broad coalition of civil society, including Transparency International, trade unions and freedom of expression advocates who worked hard to make sure the EU took a stance that really looks after the interests of those who speak out.
But there is still room for improvement. In particular, when the directive becomes law in a Member State, national governments need to make sure that the law covers every possible whistleblowing situation and protects all whistleblowers. The Directive itself only covers people who report suspected breaches in certain areas of EU law. If this were to remain the case at the national level, it would create all kinds of loopholes, and make it difficult for people to understand whether they will be protected if they blow the whistle on corruption or other wrongdoing.
Elsewhere, in February this year, Australia set a new standard in private sector whistleblower protection . Companies there now have to proactively put in place protections to that will safeguard people who speak out. The next step should be for government employees to be afforded the same level of protection.
And in April, investigative journalists, who often work closely with whistleblowers and have a special responsibility to help keep them safe from retaliation, agreed a set of principles to guide these interactions. As we highlighted in a conference panel around the same time, the extent to which the media protects whistleblower’s identity can make the difference between the case of John Doe, who leaked the Panama Papers and remains safe and anonymous, and others who have been dragged through multiple court cases and public attacks.
Whistleblower protection has been declared a priority for the G20's anti-corruption work this year, which we'll be watching closely at the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan, later this month. Some 4.7 billion people live in a country represented at the summit, so it is a huge opportunity to extend protection to almost two-thirds of the global population.
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We are asking G20 governments to adopt rigorous High Level Principles that meet international best practice standards, like our own international principles for whistleblower protection legislation. They should cover the public, private and non-profit sectors, and give the widest possible protection.
The days when a civil servant, company employee, intern or consultant could be punished for reporting illegal activity can and should be consigned to history.
Let’s hope we can one day look back on 2019 as a turning point in that story.
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