How the EU Is Failing Whistleblowers

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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Whistle blowers are commonly regarded as nuisance. They are uncomfortable for the establishment. Many people inside the establishment cannot imagine that someone from the outside of their circles could bring up a good idea, while in reality whistle blowing is often promoting ideas which could be used to improve the system, very much to the advantage of the establishment.

The problem with relying upon whistleblowing to ferret out corruption is that it requires the level of corruption to rise above the tolerance of people to such an extent that they are willing to risk their careers or even their lives in exposing it. What is needed is a structural change in the governance model to enable those who are aware of corruption to expose it earlier when it is not so overwhelming and to do so simply without risking their own wellbeing.

In Pittsburgh, PA, USA, a model for proactive public participation was implemented at the regional planning agency during the mid 1990's and was able to uncover high level corruption involving the misallocation of $12B. By integrating regular citizens within the operations of the agency, it was possible for aware insiders to simply mention "you may want to ask a question about ..." or "you may want to look into ..." and get word out without risking their careers.

The expansion of that model across the entire municipal government is part of an open government model that is proposed by OpenPittsburgh.Org. Concerned citizens from Eastern Europe and African who attended the New School conference "Corruption" in 2013 expressed interest in the model, and those in Pittsburgh continue their efforts to implement and demonstrate it in answer to high level corruption which still persists within the Pittsburgh region.

The effectiveness of the approach has been well proven. Intended as a model for adaptation by other municipalities and even at other levels of government, it needs to garner wider attention and support to become a new standard in governance. A report by Keystone Crossroads, the Pennsylvania NPR affiliate, addressed the effort:

Agreed with above (David's) comment; this is a wider structural issue.

Additionally, the problem with enhancing legal tools and protections for "whistleblowers" without enhancing the general structures which enable ordinary citizens to access legal mechanisms and redress, is that it's paving the way for a few "superstars" to challenge it, then expecting lessons learnt to trickle down. Surely the correct steps should be to ensure that enhanced access to legal aid is available to all, of all incomes, with proper and proportionate means of redress, and protection to those involved?

The problem with corruption is that it is always connected to power, and power in patriarchal societies relates to the use of any kind of violence necessary to perpetuate the most violent in power. Fortunately, the 20th century has given us some kind of hope, and for instance women's century long struggle hast become a social movement transforming society in nonviolent ways, and all kinds of human identities patriarchal values and ideology can't see, refuse to see, tries to crush, are becoming stronger. Still, we are a minority in terms of what mentalities prevail in society. In Spain, people know about corruption AND we have a democracy, not a great democracy, but it is a democracy in different kinds of things. However, there are certain topics that are disregarded in spite of the info we have because - many of us understand - fear to the most violent people, who have power to create more damage.

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