You might expect that the countries with the most resources would have the strongest legislation to protect and encourage whistleblowers, but that isn’t always the case. In many nations, cultural elements, historical precedents and the nature of the country’s predominant industries can have a significant impact on whether whistleblowers can safely speak up.
In 2014, Transparency International (TI) released “Whistleblower Protection Laws in G20 Countries,” a report detailing the strengths and weaknesses of the countries’ whistleblower programs.
Despite promises the entire group of nations made to strengthen their collective fight against fraud and corruption, the report shows that most have a very long way to go in protecting whistleblowers sufficiently in the private and public sectors. Even in countries where whistleblower protections have been legally implemented, the stigma of blowing the whistle can still be severe.
Unfortunately, legislation rarely coincides with cultural acceptance as much as anti-corruption advocates would prefer.
Given how interconnected today’s world is, this pressing issue needs to be more effectively addressed. As the report points out, “Whistleblowing is now considered to be among the most effective, if not the most effective means to expose and remedy corruption, fraud and other types of wrongdoing in the public and private sectors.”
To further understand the global landscape of whistleblower protections, here is an overview of the climate for whistleblowers in eight G20 and non-G20 nations with very different approaches.
In early 2016, Masaharu Hamada was vindicated after a nearly ten-year fight to report his employer’s alleged corruption. The Japanese whistleblower was allegedly demoted and harassed by medical device maker Olympus Corporation and after filing his initial report. Hamada was awarded $11 million yen, equivalent to $110,000, and reinstated to his original position.
A whistleblower protection law was enacted in Japan in 2004, but its implementation has not always been reliable, nor have whistleblower awards been substantial. In March 2016, a U.S. whistleblower that faced retaliation by the same company was awarded $51 million for his role in holding it accountable.
After Iceland’s devastating economic crash in 2008, the country’s commitment to rooting out fraud has made it famous for being uniquely whistleblower-friendly. This shift was bolstered by a strengthened national interest in free speech, anonymity for whistleblowers and the transparency of corporations and the government.
Many other countries suffered repercussions after the financial crash, but Iceland’s approach to holding the instigators of the crash responsible was especially assertive. Four bank executives were convicted for their role in the rampant financial misconduct that crashed Iceland’s economy.
Anti-corruption advocates often look to Iceland as a role model, because the nation has had more success than many others at showcasing whistleblowing as a legally and socially protected right. Whistleblowers can still be burdened by the stigma that they lack loyalty to their country or company; Iceland’s approach demonstrates whistleblowing as the ultimate act of loyalty.
South Korea’s whistleblower protection policies earned high marks in the report, but the cultural stigma tied to whistleblowing still appears to be a deterrent. Kim Yong-chul, a whistleblower who reported widespread corruption at multi-billion dollar corporation Samsung several years ago, was allegedly shunned and intimidated by the company without sufficient legal recourse.
South Korea did implement a whistleblower protection law in 2011, however the TI report reflects a need for greater disclosure procedures and assurances of anonymity for whistleblowers. A whistleblower in a previous case against a prominent South Korean researcher spoke out in 2014 and, after facing backlash, expressed similar concerns about the country’s negative perception of whistleblowers.
Saudi Arabia’s TI scores for whistleblower protection legislation and enforcement were low across the board in both private and public sectors. According to former whistleblowers, the country’s monarchical political structure does not support the practice, because dissent and open critique of the government are actively discouraged.
There is one Saudi whistleblower that, via Twitter, has managed to anonymously voice corruption allegations on a regular basis. It’s an undeniable risk, however, and—due to the lack of legal protections—perhaps not one many in the country would feel safe taking.
South Africa implemented its Protected Disclosures Act in 2000. Though the TI report shows significant room for improvement in areas like anonymity, oversight, and disclosure channels, it’s one of the more whistleblower-friendly nations of the G20 group.
One concern about the existing Disclosures Act is that it requires employees to report any wrongdoing internally first. As evidenced by many whistleblower cases around the world, internal reporting procedures are not always reliable. It’s important for legislation not just to exist, but to also be structured in such a way that it will be implemented consistently.
Switzerland’s well-known commitment to discretion in the financial sector has had unfortunate consequences for whistleblowers. It’s been an uphill battle for those who want to safely expose corruption in big banks and other major corporations operating out of the European nation.
Herve Falciani’s plight as a whistleblower has been one of the most controversial examples of Switzerland’s lack of protections. The former HSBC IT worker was convicted of corporate espionage for leaking banking documents to foreign countries. The documents indicated that the bank may have enabled money laundering and tax evasion. Falciani left Switzerland, but the country issued him a 5-year prison sentence in absentia.
It can be difficult for whistleblower laws to be introduced in the first place, let alone enforced. In Denmark, a government-sponsored committee determined in 2015 that no such law was necessary. The government’s rationale was that such regulatory systems should be optional.
Not everyone in Denmark agrees with that determination. There have already been cases of whistleblower retaliation, such as the National Board of Industrial Injuries employee who was fired for exposing wrongdoing at work.
Fortunately, the government is still evaluating whether legislation could be beneficial, so Danish whistleblowers may yet have a chance to gain more legal protections.
The Brazilian government enacted an anti-corruption law in 2013. The law includes provisions to protect and encourage whistleblowers, as well as penalties for any person or organization that engages in corruption.
According to both the TI report and accounts of whistleblowers and their advocates, the law hasn’t been particularly effective. Brazilian whistleblower Marcia Reis, for example, was jailed for reporting corruption. Though she was eventually released, she has raised concerns about insufficient legislation, as well as the time it takes for whistleblower reports to be investigated.
Global changes to whistleblower protections
Progress has clearly been made, but troubling barriers remain that prevent countries, including the U.S., from implementing every possible measure to root out corruption.
Legislation that facilitates external reporting is absolutely necessary, because it provides a safety net in cases where internal disclosure procedures are unreliable or corrupt.
In addition to legal protections, there is a need for greater cultural understanding of why whistleblowing is essential for national accountability. This is an issue in almost every country, because there is rarely a full consensus about what is, in fact, in the public interest.
Most people would agree, however, that corruption is absolutely not in the public interest, in any country. That little bit of common ground can at least be a start.