Shehla Masood was a 38-year-old businesswoman living in the central Indian city of Bhopal. She was shot and killed near her home on Aug. 16, 2011, after availing herself of India’s Right to Information Act in order to expose local corruption.
Masood was one of several whistleblowers killed or attacked in India before the passing of the country’s whistleblower protection bill. Her story demonstrates the considerable threat of retaliation for whistleblowing.
When faced with corruption, only few of us take the courage to speak up. Reporting questionable business practices or abuses of power without protection is simply too risky for many. However, whistleblowing plays a critical role in fighting corruption.
So, how do we encourage those who witness corruptive practices to come forward? And, how do we provide adequate protection for whistleblowers? On International Anti-Corruption Day (December 9), members of the International Corruption Hunters Alliance gathered at the World Bank to discuss these questions.
“Whistleblowers are like eyes and ears of the public,” said Dorji Thinlay, a corruption hunter with the Anti-Corruption Commission of Bhutan. “But when there is no protection, there will be retaliation on them.”
To encourage whistleblowing, we must provide strong legal measures to protect the whistleblower from retaliatory actions. Among member countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the French Law on the Fight Against Corruption protects whistleblowers from a wide range of disciplinary action, dismissal, or discrimination. Similarly, the proposed amendments to the Anti-Corruption Bill in Italy state that whistleblowers cannot be “penalized, fired or submitted to any direct or indirect discrimination, which would have an impact on the working conditions directly or indirectly linked to the whistleblowing (read more).”
These measures, however, should not be taken to indicate widespread or universal protection for whistleblowers. Transparency International reports that while the United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) stresses the importance of whistleblower protection, many of the countries that have ratified the Convention still lack adequate legal protections or the will to enforce them to protect whistleblowers.
Confidentiality is vital to keeping whistleblowers safe. Most whistleblower laws require the identity of the whistleblower to be kept confidential. For instance, the anti-corruption prosecutor in Peru is obliged to protect the identity of whistleblowers by assigning them identification codes which the prosecutor is responsible for keeping secret. According to Carla Salazar, General Secretary of the Comptroller General’s Office in Peru, sanctions should also be imposed against those who disclose or allow access to the personal information of the whistleblowers. Without these measures to ensure confidentiality, whistleblowers will likely be too fearful to speak up.
Legal protection alone is not enough to encourage whistleblowing. Nicola Bonucci, Director for Legal Affairs of OECD, suggests that the success of corruption hunters depends on effective awareness-raising campaigns and open communication that inform the public of their rights and designated channels of reporting in their respective countries.
Experiences from Bhutan and Peru indicate that public outreach—in collaboration with civil society partners through social media, publications, and text messages—contributes to building public confidence in reporting corruption. In Bhutan, for instance, citizens used to report corruption anonymously out of fear of retaliation. Now, as citizens become more aware and trusting of the Anti-Corruption Committee, the number of anonymous reports to the Committee has slowly declined during the past eight years.
Communicating the importance and value of coming forward may also serve to change cultural perceptions and public attitudes towards whistleblowing, as it can cultivate an understanding of whistleblowing as an act for public good.
Whistleblowers play an important, though often risky, role in exposing corruption. To protect and encourage whistleblowing, we need both robust legal frameworks that protect whistleblowers from retaliation, and clear communication of procedures and channels available to those who witness and report corruption.
For more information on the International Corruption Hunters Alliance (ICHA), including interviews of top officials, please visit the ICHA webpage.
Photograph by Julián Rodriguez Orihuela via Flickr
Follow PublicSphereWB on Twitter!