Whistleblowers, an increasingly widespread phenomenon
On 24th October 2017, the European Parliament largely approved the report by MEP Virginie Rozière, Socialist and Democrats group, on legitimate measures to protect whistleblowers acting in the public interest. The report refers to all those people who, with an outburst of civic sense, endanger their working and private tranquility – and in some cases their lives – to denounce an illegal, immoral and unjustified phenomenon by colleagues, societies and sometimes institutions.
Whistleblowers exist at all levels of society but clearly, the more important the information revealed is, the higher the risks. In Europe we realized that we had to make laws protecting whistleblowers after scandals such as « Panama Papers », « LuxLeaks » and « Paradise Papers ». The latter have revealed that also Queen Elizabeth II and the international singer Bono Vox invested in offshore tax havens.
A whistleblower can reveal salient information that is used by States to protect citizens or let them know of the offences perpetrated by some illustrious fellow citizens and perhaps some rulers. Some whistleblowers have revealed great acts of international espionage, stories of torture and lack of human rights or even illegal acts and armaments made by some of the most powerful armies in the world.
For some years, the world’s most famous whistleblower, Julian Assange, published on his website Wikileaks confidential news about governments, states, and world diplomacy. In fact, thanks to the founder’s computer skills, the website serves as a letter box of whistleblowers from around the world who want to keep their identity safe but reveal information about their jobs. If Julian Assange’s work is so important for so many people, the revelations that Edward Snowden – an analyst at the National Security Agency (NSA) – made to The Guardian were also very important for many European countries that have discovered that they are actually spied on by the US government.
In addition to these two famous cases, the European Parliament has been involved in the appearance of whistleblowers on important facts related to tax issues, unpaid taxes and money laundering linked to illegal activities. The first famous scandal was the one related to the whistleblower Hervé Falciani who, working with the Swiss bank HSBC, sent to the then French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde a list with the names of many Europeans who deposited money in Switzerland with the purpose of evading taxes and recycling money.
Although less importantly related to this type of information are “Panama Papers”, “Paradise Papers” and “LuxLeaks”, linked to the complex tax law built in Luxembourg to create a sort of tax haven in the heart of Europe.
The Rozière report
In all these cases of whistleblowing, in the front line for the defense and the protection of informers, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) was founded, and was the first to welcome the report that MEP Virginie Roziére presented and was approved by the EU Parliament on 24th October 2017.
The Rozière report explains the reasons why whistleblowers should be protected, the ways and dangers to which they are exposed and discusses some possibilities on how to protect them at the European level. With the approval of the report, the task goes to the Commission, which will have to make a proposal for the creation of a true European legislation on the subject.
The report explains how a whistleblower can play a positive role in European democracies, informing people on illegal acts and guaranteeing the general interest and not the one of a particular group, institution or public figure. It also suggests the possibility of creating a systematized reporting mechanism to ensure the confidentiality and security of the whistleblower, all of which could be a way of encouraging this kind of behavior and leading it to systematization in the legal process of our democracies.
The most significant part of the report is, finally, the protection of informants and their support by public opinions that has become a kind of insurance for their safety. Just as people fighting the Mafia, public support is a sort of insurance to protect them from retaliations. The report concludes by inviting the Commission and the other European institutions to create an impartial body which can link to various national institutions, gathering and verifying whistleblower reports and initiating procedures for protecting them.
Stories of whistleblowers: soldiers and journalists
The report, albeit ample, seems to give more emphasis to whistleblowers in cases of corruption and money laundering, cases that have had the greatest impact on European politics and media. Certainly, these are the most commonly used whistleblowing cases and for which it is easier to systematize the complaint method and at the same time give protection. But in view of the use of whistleblowing as a method of expanding democracy and informing citizens of illegal or irresponsible acts of their rulers, we cannot avoid widening the protection of whistleblowers in both the public and security sectors.
Cases such as the Snowden one, that have rendered a great service to the European Union revealing the interceptions that the NSA did to our governments, was inevitable to be taken into account. But the role of broadening democracy must also be to help less known, but important, whistleblowers such as John Kiriakou.
Kiriakou, former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) agent, was the first U.S. government official to confirm in December 2007 that waterboarding was used to interrogate and torture Al Qaeda prisoners. Confirming that these methods were largely used and approved by the government has put an end to his career. He was also accused of treason and espionage. He was sentenced in October 2012 and finished his condemn in prison in 2015 only.
On 8th November 2017, Kiriakou was at the European Parliament for a conference organized by the Party of European United Left: he told about his experience and how he was forced to go to the press, because he felt not only that torture was against the principles of democracy, but also that knowledge of the truth about the methods of torture that the government used was a citizen’s right. Just because of the connivance of these practices by all his superiors and colleagues, Kiriakou could only go to the press and tell what happened in the Guantanamo prison.
If Kiriakou’s revelations were about torture and abuses on the most basic human rights, Lieutenant Luis Gonzalo Segura’s revelations were about the evidences of corruption and bribery he had found in the Spanish army. After more than five months of preventive detention and 22 days of hunger strike, he is still being sued in Spain and has been expelled from the army. It’s even worst what happened to the Major of the Italian Army Marco Callegaro, who was found dead by suicide in 2010 after he began to tell of a possible scam organized by some of his superiors on the cost of armored vehicles. Investigations on his suicide have opened up further investigations that seem to confirm the scam, leaving many shadows on the death of an unsuccessful whistleblowing.
The tragic event that led to the death of Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galicia, killed by a bomb in her car on 16th October 2017, is the latest one to lighten the reflectors on the risks that whistleblowers are exposed to by trying to restore legality through a process internal to their workplace or denouncing it through the press. All of these facts reveal how we need unbiased bodies able to take allegations of whistleblowers and protect their lives and identities.
Whistleblowing and democracy
The phenomenon of whistleblowing has always existed, it is enough to think that in 1863 the United States already had a law for the protection of informers. Thanks to the computerized and always connected world, the possibility of denouncing misdeeds, discovered at the workplace or in one’s own branch of knowledge, has become more and more a daily practice and the phenomenon of whistleblowing has grown a lot.
When a whistleblower denounces a crime, makes public a behavior or a socially unacceptable story, he or she usually does it in favor of the society and in order to warn it, he or she does so to eliminate characters from power’s position that in our developed democracies should not exist. The whistleblower has the right to be protected, as our democracies should have the right to the truth about what is happening on behalf of the citizens.
Creating an organ or a system to protect and control the truthfulness of information coming from whistleblowers is desirable. It would be the best way to expand this phenomenon safely, to protect whistleblowers and to provide citizens with justice in the events of serious offenses. That body could therefore guarantee the truthfulness of the disclosed information, and in some particular cases it may also filter confidential information. It could resolve the reported criminal act without endangering national security.
The protection of whistleblowers and the development of this phenomenon could even be a new impetus for our democracies: a coherent and functioning system that rewards those who act in the legality and common well-being and condemns and prosecutes those who act illegally, for personal purposes or even out of our common sense of justice, human and people rights.
For further information:
Whistleblowng International Network : https://whistleblowingnetwork.org/
International consortium of investigative journalists : https://www.icij.org/
Transparency International EU : https://transparency.eu/
Reporters without borders : https://rsf.org/en
European Federation of journalists : http://europeanjournalists.org/