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How the EU Is Failing Whistleblowers

A man in a large red hat
A fan blows a whistle before the 2014 FIFA World Cup on June 13, 2014. © Quinn Rooney/Getty

After 13 years of serving his country, Lieutenant Luis Gonzalo Segura had had enough. Everywhere he looked in the Spanish military, he saw corruption, abuse, harassment, and inherited privilege. The top brass, meanwhile, were happy to look the other way.

Segura began to document the scams, false invoices, and accounting discrepancies he came across. “For example,” he told me, “I found that €60,000 were paid monthly to update software that was not even installed.”

When he reported what he’d discovered to his superiors, Segura says, they advised him to look the other way. He might get a promotion or a medal in exchange for his silence, they said, and he would put himself at risk if he continued denouncing his comrades-in-arms. But Segura refused to become an accomplice. Rather than be deterred, he insisted on reporting to his superiors each crime he encountered within the barracks.

His complaints were never answered. In 2012, military courts dismissed his allegations without an investigation or audit. Prosecutors didn’t even ask him for evidence. Eventually, his frustration exploded into a book. In 2014, he published Un Paso al Frente (A Step Forward), a collection of his experiences as a military man.

The book depicts a gloomy world where impunity, corruption, abuse, embezzlement, and labor and sexual harassment flourish, where the troops forced to deal with this environment are helpless. In response to the book, military police arrested Segura on charges of “indiscipline.” He was held in custody, without trial, for 139 days. To protest his detention, Segura went on a 22-day hunger strike.

While in prison, he began writing up memories of his service. His second book, a novel entitled Código Rojo (Code Red), portrayed a set of characters solving a number of crimes—many of which were based on his experiences in the barracks. A day after the book’s publication, he was expelled from the army with a dishonorable discharge.

To date, Segura has spent more than €40,000 on trials and says he still owes more than €30,000 for the legal procedures he has been involved in since 2012. “I live, like most whistleblowers, off charity,” he says. “The whistleblower not only loses the present but also the future. We are stigmatized people, seen as nuisances and traitors, and as such we don’t even have a future. No company will ever hire me.”

Since October 3, Segura has been awaiting the Constitutional Court of Spain’s verdict on his appeal against the indiscipline charges. It is unlikely to rule in his favor. Spain is one of a handful of EU member states with no legislation to protect employees from retaliation for exposing wrongdoing. There are almost no labor or administrative codes in place to protect whistleblowers. The country has no culture of reporting wrongdoing, and there is no appetite among the ruling party, Partido Popular, to install legal protections for whistleblowers.

Once Segura has exhausted all the legal options provided by the Spanish state, he can apply to the European Court of Human Rights. As an act of support for Segura ahead of the ruling, the organization Plataforma X la Honestidad and a group of other Spanish whistleblowers organized an international event, supported by the Open Society Foundations, where whistleblowers and anticorruption activists from across Europe spoke about their own cases and expressed their solidarity with Segura.

Segura’s story is just one of many in Spain, where a number of prominent corruption cases have been exposed by brave public officials coming forward to expose wrongdoing. Yet the role of whistleblowers in democratic and transparent decision-making is still misunderstood in Spain, allowing smear campaigns to hurt those who speak out.

Unfortunately, this problem is not unique to Spain; throughout Europe, whistleblower protections remain fragmented and imperfect. Both national and European institutions lack comprehensive legislation to support whistleblowers, and both show little political will to do anything about it. Even in institutions where the legal protection of whistleblowers does exist, meanwhile, provisions are often vague, do not ensure anonymity, and fail to include all civil servants and their employees.

Until Spain and Europe try to fix this broken system, corruption and abuse will continue to be concealed and abetted by those who benefit when whistleblowers are silent or smothered. Without real reform, public servants such as Segura will continue to be punished for doing their jobs and living up to their institutions’ professed values—and, in the end, it will be the public good that suffers. 

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