Whistleblowers around the world are uniquely positioned to observe fraud and corruption, and they can be essential to detecting and successfully prosecuting criminal activity. However, while whistleblower protections have been enacted in 59 countries, many protections are inadequate, and local and national governments often fail to protect whistleblowers from reprisals.
In countries where the rule of law is weak, whistleblowers have been greatly hindered by the threat of retaliatory measures by wrongdoers and their allies. In 2019 alone, 212 land and environmental defenders were killed according to Global Witness, which marks the highest annual total since statistics were first collected. In many of the cases documented by Global Witness, the governments did not simply fail to act – they vilified whistleblowers and otherwise contributed to the reprisals.
Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) can play an important role in addressing gaps in whistleblower protection by serving as intermediaries for whistleblowers who wish to remain anonymous, by educating whistleblowers about the strongest existing whistleblower laws, and advocating for stronger whistleblower laws around the world.
Facilitating anonymous reporting
In places where there is a strong perception of corruption or where the threat of retaliation is particularly high, NGOs can assist whistleblowers by acting as a trusted intermediary between whistleblowers and the government. By reporting through a trusted civil society organization, whistleblowers can keep their identities confidential and avoid retaliation.
The option to report through an intermediary can increase reports from whistleblowers who are concerned about government corruption. In Indonesia, a case study on reporting corruption found that some whistleblowers were more likely to report local corruption to an NGO intermediary, rather than reporting directly to police or prosecutors. In 2018, South Korea also adopted a system of proxy reporting that allows whistleblowers to report anonymously through a lawyer and provides funds to cover legal fees for whistleblowers.
A common offering of civil society organizations is hotlines. Hotlines present several potential challenges for whistleblower reporting, particularly regarding security of the technology used to maintain the hotline. However, where reporting to the government would otherwise not be possible, the involvement of civil society groups with carefully constructed hotlines can create important pathways for whistleblowers.
In Madagascar, a hotline run by a civil society group, Alliance Voahary Gasy (AVG), allows callers to provide anonymous tips concerning environmental and wildlife crimes. The environmental lawyers who operate the hotline investigate tips and, in some cases, refer them to government agencies for enforcement. The program has led to at least one arrest, based on a whistleblower’s report about the trafficking of an endangered tortoise by a clerk at the Ministry of Justice. AVG worked with the Madagascar police to investigate, while the whistleblower remained anonymous.
In Sri Lanka, whistleblowers can also anonymously report environmental crimes relating to forests and wetlands through a mobile app created by the Center for Environmental Justice (CEJ), a Sri Lankan NGO. When users report through the app, CEJ verifies the information and then uses it to demand action from the authorities. In 2019, CEJ received reports of 10 wetland destruction incidents, 14 poaching incidents, and 32 forest crimes.
Educating whistleblowers about strong existing whistleblower laws
While many whistleblower laws around the world remain weak, several powerful U.S. whistleblower laws are generally available to whistleblowers regardless of their physical location or citizenship status, allowing whistleblowers around the world to confidentially report corruption to U.S. law enforcement. Awareness of these laws remains limited around the world, however, and whistleblowers seeking to use U.S. laws nonetheless often face significant challenges, including understanding complex procedural requirements. NGOs around the world can help whistleblowers by expanding awareness of U.S. laws, especially about the ability for non-U.S. citizens to use U.S. whistleblower laws.
A wider understanding of applicability of U.S. whistleblowers laws could provide opportunities for whistleblower to reveal complex transnational criminal schemes, such as tax evasion, timber trafficking, multinational bribery schemes, and money laundering. Referring to the U.S. Internal Revenue Service’s work with whistleblower Brad Birkenfeld, Swiss researcher Ellen Hertz explains that “the United States, when it wants to, can be extremely forceful in imposing its jurisdictional reach on other countries. The United States single handedly killed the Swiss banking secrecy tradition.” If used effectively, U.S. whistleblower laws could have a similarly significant impact on other corrupt schemes around the world.
Advocating for stronger whistleblower laws around the world
As interest in whistleblower protection grows around the world, new opportunities to empower whistleblowers to help combat corruption are surfacing every day. NGOs can assist whistleblowers by advocating for the adoption of strong whistleblower laws in the countries they operate in and ensuring that any proposed whistleblower laws adhere to best practices. Best practices for whistleblower laws include independent reporting channels, strong protections for confidentiality, and opportunities for financial rewards.
The recent passage of the European Parliament’s landmark Whistleblowing Directive provides an important opportunity to advocate for stronger whistleblower laws. The Whistleblowing Directive, passed in 2019, instructs European Union (EU) countries to enact greater protections by shielding whistleblowers from retaliation and creating “safe channels” to report violations of the law by December 2021. This Directive is the first effort to create a common minimum whistleblower standard across the EU.
The National Whistleblower Center is working with NGOs and partners to combat corruption and strengthen whistleblower laws within the European Union. In December 2020, NWC and Munich-based Whistleblowing International launched the European Whistleblower Protection and Reward Project to educate European NGOs, the general public, government officials, and the media about the importance of whistleblower laws.