Legal protection of whistleblowers has gained growing attention over the last years in parliamentarian debates across European and Asian transitional and authoritarian regimes. The issue featured prominently at the 13th International Anti-Corruption Conference, which brought together legal experts, journalists, activists and development professionals in in Athens, Greece, from Oct. 30 to Nov. 2.
Whistleblowers. Denominators. Persons d'alert. These are terms used to refer to individuals responsible for alleging misconduct. Whistleblowing defies simple categorization; several organizations have dismissed the term. Ian Harden, head of the European Ombudsman's legal department, described the act of blowing the whistle as "the disclosure by a person, in a government agency or private enterprise, to the public or those in authority, of mismanagement, corruption, illegality or any other kind of wrongdoing."
Whistleblowers can stem from several societal and professional groups. They may be civil society activists, journalists or "ordinary citizens conscious of public interest, transparency and accountability," according to Sriprapha Petcharamesree, director of the Office for Human Rights and Social Development at Mahidol University, Thailand.
In transitional countries where structures of good governance are still fragile, if not absent, their presence has contributed vastly to the fight against corruption. In developing countries, institutional and structural weaknesses can "hold back the growth of democracy," said Melinda Quintos de Jesus, executive director from the center for Media Freedom and Responsibility in the Philippines. Elections in the Philippines, for instance, often encourage candidates who do not have necessary qualities of "competence, experience and integrity," thus making the function of whistleblowers from media circles imperative, according to Quintos.
Experts from Poland, Korea, Romania and Thailand stressed the importance of independent "whistleblowers" - performing outside the official institutional channels - in tackling corruption. Yet, the absence of legal framework for their protection can greatly compromise their safety and in turn willingness and motivation to keep "spreading the word." Even where the legal framework is in place, authorities tend to ignore it.
"Laws are necessary but not enough for the countries in which the rule of law is not respected," Quintos argued.
Romania, for instance, first enacted a "whistleblower law" and then initiated a review of its quality. It concluded that public institutions "do not observe the law, the interior regulations have not been modified, the public officials are not familiar with the law whatsoever whereas others find the law to be inapplicable as they say that the promised protection cannot be granted," said Mircea Toma, director of the Media Monitoring Agency, a Romanian non-governmental organization.
Harden suggested that whistleblower policies should apply to both the public and private sectors, especially in transitional economies.