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Why We Need Whistleblower Protections

Demonstrators with whistles in a crowd
An anticorruption demonstration, in Madrid, Spain, on April 25, 2017. © Juan Carlos Lucas/NurPhoto/Getty

In the struggle for transparency and accountability, whistleblowers play an invaluable role. Increasingly, policymakers, media outlets, and many types of civil society organizations recognize the value whistleblowers provide and the need to protect them. Unfortunately, despite increasing efforts in many jurisdictions, whistleblowers still fear retaliation and worry about whether their concerns will be addressed.

What is a whistleblower?

Although the term “whistleblowing” is widely used, there is no publicly uniform definition. Generally, a whistleblower is understood as someone working for an organization who discloses information that they believe shows evidence that may be illegal, unethical, or could cause harm to others. Any person who discloses serious wrongdoing or other information of public interest should be protected under “whistleblowing” laws and their disclosure properly assessed and investigated. 

The Council of Europe, whose stated aim is to uphold human rights, democracy and the rule of law in Europe, defines whistleblowing as “the act of someone reporting a concern or disclosing information on acts and omissions that represent a threat or harm to the public interest that they have come across in the course of their work.”

What’s the difference between a whistleblower who goes public and a leaker?

A leak can be a disclosure of information, usually anonymously, without official authorisation, typically made by a person inside an organisation in order to publicise the information. Confusingly, leaks are often made by governments themselves, for a variety of reasons.

While unattributed leaks and anonymous disclosures raise questions about an individual’s motivation—whether it is malicious or to obtain personal or political advantage—it is also an important protective measure. The only way to address this responsibly is to first focus on the message, not the messenger. 

Is whistleblowing legal?

Laws protecting whistleblowers have advanced worldwide in the last decade, as many countries now recognize whistleblowers’ role in reducing corruption and improving integrity. According to research conducted in 2011, there are 30 countries with dedicated whistleblower laws and many more with at least partial legal protections.

According to Anna Myers, executive director of the Whistleblowing International Network, whistleblowing is increasingly seen as an “antidote to secrecy imposed by governments on the grounds of national security, and by the private sector on the basis of their economic interests.”   

What protections exist for whistleblowers?

The boundaries of who should be protected (and when and why) often differ based on the organizations involved, and the country’s legal system. Additionally, the institutional will to protect whistleblowing is impacted by the political environment as well as cultural perspectives on the value of a whistleblower.

In general, however, much depends on the whistleblower’s jurisdiction. In the United States, for example, federal whistleblower protection laws have been in place since 1978, and in 2010 all companies listed on the U.S. Stock Exchange were made subject to rules allowing rewards for anonymous disclosures and prohibiting whistleblower retaliation under the Dodd Frank Act.

The UK, meanwhile, has protected workplace whistleblowing since 1999. Countries like Australia and South Africa have had whistleblower laws in place from 1993 and 2000, respectively. And the European Directive protecting whistleblowers must be implemented in all EU member states by the end of 2021.

Have whistleblowers been retaliated against?

Yes. As well as attempts to reveal whistleblowers’ identity, they have experienced serious harassment and isolation at work, can be fired from their jobs and blacklisted in their sectors and can even receive death threats and jail sentences.

Antoine Deltour, the Luxleaks whistleblower, was prosecuted in Luxembourg and faced both five years in jail and a potential fine of €1,250,000. He was acquitted of all charges after a six-year court battle—something beyond the resources of many whistleblowers. Although Spanish whistleblower Ana Garrida Ramos revealed corruption at the highest levels of government in Spain, for example, she was still subjected to a vitriolic harassment campaign. 

What good has whistleblowing accomplished?

Most whistleblowers don’t go public. The vast majority raise their concerns internally or with regulatory/law enforcement authorities. So, while the wrongdoing may attract public attention, the whistleblowers’ involvement remains hidden. For example, a nurse in the UK blew the whistle on the mistreatment of people with learning difficulties, which led to an undercover documentary crew’s revelation of the extent of the abuse—and, ultimately, the imprisonment of six abusive care workers.

Numerous cases, such as Antoine Deltour on #LuxleaksChelsea ManningEdward Snowden, the Panama Papers, have demonstrated how whistleblowing can serve as an important catalyst for reform, revealing the multinational, cross-border nature of the most serious corruption and highlighting accountability failures and the inability or unwillingness of governments to tackle these issues.

How does Wikileaks fit into the discussion on protecting whistleblowers?

Wikileaks is sometimes called a whistleblower organization and Julian Assange, its former editor, is sometimes referred to as a whistleblower. Experts have argued that these designations are inaccurate. Unlike whistleblowers, Wikileaks publishes news and analysis. Often, its work is buttressed with large data sets that have been disclosed by anonymous whistleblowers—but unlike whistleblowers, Wikileaks has joined publishing partnerships with major media organizations across Europe, Asia, Latin America, and North America.

How Are the Open Society Foundations Supporting Whistleblowers?

Since 2013, the Open Society Foundations have 

  • led the development of the 2013 Tshwane Principles on National Security and Freedom of Information, which helped shape UN and European standards on the rights of national security whistleblowers;
  • helped to develop an emerging field of whistleblowing expertise in Europe comprised of digital platforms, trade union representatives, investigative journalists, lawyers, and watchdog groups such as the Whistleblowing International Network;
  • supported the launch of the Digital Whistleblowing Fund, an experimental grant project that provides financial, operational, and strategic support to projects that actively engage the public to disclose and fight against malpractice and threats to the public interest;
  • provided strategic grants to European advocacy organizations who successfully pushed for the Directive on Whistleblower Protection that was adopted by EU institutions in 2019;
  • backed the creation of the French House of Whistleblowers, which takes a holistic approach to supporting whistleblowers; 
  • commissioned a study on whistleblowing in Europe covering eight countries (Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Serbia, Spain, the Netherlands, and United Kingdom) that informed the conversation between civil society and policymakers at the EU and national levels; 
  • promoted the development of new principles to transform journalists’ thinking about their obligations to protect whistleblowers in the digital age.

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