Welcome to WIN

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Welcome to WIN the international whistleblowing network of NGOs working to support and protect workplace whistleblowing around the world.

We work in our different countries to protect those who speak up to stop harm and avoid damage to others – too often at great personal cost to themselves.

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We have come together to let you know more about how and why we do the work we do, to share the legal expertise and practical knowledge we have built up over many years, and to continue to learn from and support one another and others whenever we can.

Please explore our website and find out where you can get further information on whistleblowing in your own country.  If you are working in the field please request to JOIN in our capacity-building conversation or find out more about NGO membership in the WIN network.

Why we need networks like WIN

by Vladimir Radomirović

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Vladimir Radomirović explains how the Whistleblowing International Network’s resources are helping him improve whistleblower protections in Serbia.

Journalists are accustomed to being the publishers of whistleblower disclosures, not the sources of them. But in 2009 that’s exactly what happened to a group of journalists I was a part of who blew the whistle on censorship and conflict of interest at the oldest daily newspaper in Serbia. That whistleblowing experience changed the course of my career, forcing me to rethink how I could best practice journalism. It also resulted in my association with the Whistleblowing International Network, which is supporting our work in Serbia to chart a new course for whistleblowers in our country.

The newspaper in question, Politika, was jointly owned by a German publishing company and the government of Serbia. Following a change of leadership in 2008, new editors increasingly prevented investigative reporting and stifled debate on important political issues. Politika journalists protested first to the editor-in-chief who, in keeping with his authoritarian style, offered no explanation. Then we sent letters to the paper’s board members and to the German company. None of the board members, including well-respected human rights activists and university professors, replied. The German company acknowledged political pressures on reporters by the government, but claimed they were unable to do anything since their partner in the endeavor was “coming from the political area.” With no one inside the paper willing or able to address the reporters’ concerns, we turned to local journalistic associations and to the European Federation of Journalists, but little or no help was offered.

We then did what journalists do best: We informed the public about what was happening via a statement on censorship published by a news agency and a daily paper. We also filed a conflict of interest complaint against the prime minister, whose company was receiving kickbacks from the newspaper. No official action was taken against the prime minister, who said he would sell his shares in the company. The journalists, however, were fired from the newspaper.

Our dismissal made clear the need for an investigative news outlet free of political and economic pressures and thus free to report on any important issue. Being a whistleblower myself, I was also aware of the need for whistleblowers to have protections and to have allies. In 2010 I founded an online investigative news outlet. The name of the outlet was an obvious choice: Pištaljka (The Whistle).

Five years since its inception, Pištaljka has published hundreds of investigative articles on corruption and brought to light the fates of dozens of whistleblowers. In some instances, our reporting resulted in positive changes, with fired or threatened whistleblowers getting their jobs back or seeing threats subside. Despite the forces aligned against it, the press still retains some power to affect change.

In addition to telling their stories, we are partnering with whistleblowers to build better protections for those in Serbia who are willing to speak up in the public’s interest. One example of such a partner is Biljana Mraović, a judge who reported corruption at a court in a small town in western Serbia. She alleged that the presiding judge there was taking bribes from indicted criminals, who then walked free. What Biljana did was remarkably brave. She had no political backing, and she was a female judge in a small town that had no independent media. When I asked her why she did it, she simply said: “This is how I was brought up. I can’t stand injustice.”

Far from being rewarded for her courage, Biljana was removed from her position (yes, even judges can be fired in Serbia). Even worse, she received threats from the office of the president of Serbia. After Pištaljka published a story about this, the information commissioner filed charges against the presidential office. An official there was fined and eventually Biljana got her job back.

In addition, for the past year Biljana has been involved in drafting the whistleblower protection law, as one of two whistleblowers who were on the working group set up by the Ministry of Justice. (The other one is Slobodan Marinković, a police inspector who blew the whistle on corrupt local officials allowing illegal construction in a Belgrade suburb.) As my interest in whistleblowing and whistleblower protection grew over the years, I came to know the organizations and individuals involved with WIN. During public consultation on the draft whistleblower law, WIN’s assistance has been indispensable. In mid-January I shared an early draft with the WIN email Listserv, and in a matter of days I received comments from experts and lawyers from the UK, Canada, US, and Germany. With Tom Devine of the Government Accountability Project and Paul Stephenson, a consultant at Public Concern at Work, already involved in the drafting process, this impressive group of practitioners was able to improve the text in ways that simply would not have been possible without the Network. WIN is now coordinating an effort to change some provisions in the final draft before the law is adopted by parliament. We at Pištaljka are particularly concerned about an article on classified information that would see virtually any information declared secret and therefore prevent many whistleblowers from going public.

This sort of networking was also evident at the June conference co-sponsored by WIN in Amsterdam (see blog Oct. 6). The gathering was a unique opportunity to share experiences and to think about the future relationship of journalists and whistleblowers. After my presentation on Pištaljka, I was approached by several young people who showed interest in starting similar websites in other parts of Europe. It clearly showed that WIN is much stronger than the sum of its parts.

As WIN grows even stronger, whistleblowers from around the world will have a voice, a platform of the kind we lacked back in 2009 when we blew the whistle on censorship in Serbia.

Vladimir Radomirović — editor in chief of Pištaljka, an investigative journalism/whistleblowing activism website in Serbia — is a 2014/15 Nieman Fellow at Harvard University.

International Whistleblowers Conference brings together journalists, lawyers, and technologists for first-of-its kind gathering in Amsterdam

With whistleblowing at the center of the world stage like never before, WIN co-organized a conference that brought together those professional communities whose work is central not only to whistleblowing but to the fate of whistleblowers themselves: lawyers, journalists, and technologists. WIN partnered with Network Democracy, Free Press Unlimited, Netherlands Whistleblower Advice Centre, and the Hermes Centre for Transparency and Human Rights for the first-ever International Whistleblowers Conference on June 18, 2014 in Amsterdam.
The program offered a unique format that blended the international and Dutch national perspectives on whistleblowing presented through the prism of lawyers, journalists, and technologists. Significantly, the voices of whistleblowers were featured throughout the workshops and plenary sessions, bringing their indispensible take on the importance of public interest whistleblowing. In addition, prominent civil society organizations like WIN contributed their view on whistleblowing, democratic accountability, and what CSOs can offer by way of whistleblower protection.
With the overarching theme being how the three sectors can work separately and together to enhance whistleblower protection, the conference’s most stimulating discussions were those that took a closer look at the evolving phenomenon of whistleblowing, the public’s response to it, and its political and cultural impact. MI-5 whistleblower Annie Machon, in her opening keynote address, reminded the 200+ attendees of the risks whistleblowers continue to take as the “regulators of last resort” in an era largely lacking public- and private-sector accountability. She and plenary speaker Fabio Pietrosanti of Globaleaks recognized the empowering potential of technology to “transform information into action,” and acknowledged its limitations in terms of whistleblower protection.
WIN’s Executive Director Anna Myers perfectly framed the conference’s context and content when discussing the “new tools and new challenges” facing the whistleblower protection community. WIN’s work methodology is designed to leverage those tools and meet the new challenges by centralizing the role of national CSOs in a framework of mutual support. The Network provides assistance that the organizations themselves define as appropriate in the context in which they work to support whistleblowers. In turn, those entities’ specific regional and technical knowledge becomes part of the Network’s growing area of expertise that is shared internationally.
As Ms. Myers observed, “whistleblowers show where accountability mechanisms are failing.” One thing is clear in this age of “globalization” — whether it is global finance and its attendant worldwide financial meltdown, transnational resource production and the far-flung political instability created in its wake, or internationally-linked mass surveillance –there are no effective international accountability mechanisms to protect the public. Organizations like WIN, as well as the communities of journalists, lawyers and technologists who work with and for whistleblowers, can begin to fill this gap in a strategic and effective way.
The commonalities and differences within and among the three sectors that were the conference’s focus produced much of the day’s lively debate and discussion. For example, the international journalism workshop highlighted the difference between traditional journalism’s approach to working with whistleblowers and that of advocacy journalism, which takes a more active role in the whistleblowing process. Vladimir Radomirović, editor-in-chief of the Serbian investigative reporting website Pištaljka, noted this in the workshop when he explained how his organization filed a corruption complaint against the Serbian defense minister, an act that other journalists considered inappropriate even though it resulted in criminal charges against the minister.
That this first-ever gathering of this type not be the last was a sentiment expressed by many at the end of the day. As Radomirović observed, “We need more conferences like this in other European countries. We are trying our best to do one in Serbia.”

Proposed whistleblower law provides no protections for whistleblowers

SWITZERLAND — The proposed whistleblowing law that has been adopted in the Swiss Conseil des Etats, the upper house of parliament, will effectively silence employees who are best placed to report wrongdoing and threats to the public interest. The proposed law, which focuses on whistleblowing procedures rather than on the public interest value in the information, offers no protections for whistleblowers. It also prohibits the disclosure of information to the press, except when the regulatory authorities do not reply within two weeks to the whistleblower. The proposed law now will be considered by the Conseil National, the parliament’s lower house.

The law’s restrictions on public disclosures and lack of protections leave whistleblowers at the mercy of both their employers, who often retaliate against them, and the justice system, where the deck is stacked against them. In the case of multinational corporations, the army of lawyers and deep-pocketed financial resources at their disposal give them immense advantage over an individual who may have just lost her job, or is under threat of such. This being the reality it’s not surprising that the modus operandi of corporations is to fire whistleblowers and offer six months’ severance pay – what a whistleblower can expect from the judicial system even if she is successful in proving employer retaliation. For the offending corporation, it’s merely the cost of doing business.

But six months’ salary is of little help to a whistleblower who will likely find it difficult to obtain new employment and suffer untold financial and emotional distress; it’s also no substitute for justice.

Here it must be recognized that there is another loser in this process, which allows criminal acts and wrongdoing to be ignored: the public welfare. While whistleblowers take the initial direct hit, often sacrificing their careers and social stability, in the long term it is the general public who will pay the price if food is not safe, financial institutions aren’t sound, or privacy disappears. And with the globalization of virtually every aspect of our lives, risk knows no border. Likewise, supporting whistleblowers shouldn’t either. This is not just a Swiss issue; it is also an issue requiring international attention.

The Swiss law should be strengthened to provide judicial protection mechanisms that support whistleblowers who suffer retaliation, ensure there is public accountability for employers and regulators, as well as apply penalties strong enough to dissuade employers from retaliating. It is only by taking such action that Switzerland, and indeed all countries, will signal to its citizens that corruption, fraud, and threats to the public well being will not be tolerated.

By Yasmine Motarjemi and Alison Glick

Dr. Yasmine Motarjemi is a former senior scientist at the Food Safety Programme, World Health Organisation, and former Corporate Food Safety Manager with Nestle, Switzerland.

Alison Glick is WIN Coordinator at the Government Accountability Project, Washington, D.C.

Additional Resources:

http://www.foodsafetymagazine.com/magazine-archive1/junejuly-2014/whistleblowing-food-safety-and-fraud/

http://www.rts.ch/la-1ere/programmes/le-12h30/6145830-durcissement-de-la-loi-sur-les-lanceurs-d-alerte-adopte-aux-conseil-des-etats-23-09-2014.html?f=player/popup

http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/09/19/us-switzerland-whistleblower-idUSKBN0HE23K20140919

http://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/switzerland-prepares-to-tighten-screws-on-whistleblowers/40790684

http://www.tdg.ch/suisse/conseil-etats-soutient-protection-minimale/story/28562185?comments=1

http://www.24heures.ch/suisse/Le-Conseil-des-Etats-soutient-une-protection-minimale/story/28562185

http://www.humanrights.ch/fr/droits-humains-suisse/interieure/protection/divers/whistleblowing-bientot-regle-juridiquement

Whistleblowing for Change

If you missed this conference last year … you are in luck! Click here for a half-hour “documentary” of the Whistleblowing for Change conference organised by Transparency International and held at the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Berlin in March 2013. See excerpts from Mark Cohen’s terrific keynote speech (Office of the Special Counsel, US), Bea Edwards’ inspiring closing speech (Government Accountability Project, Washington – a founding member of WIN!) and get a sense of the panel discussions with participants from around the world.

In March 2013, Transparency International (TI) brought together some of the world’s leading experts on public interest whistleblowing to discuss  the key challenges in making whistleblowing work for a better world.  Many of these include organisations and experts participating in the Whistleblowing International Network (WIN) and we are grateful to TI for keeping whistleblower protection high on the anti-corruption agenda.

The conference was one of the first international opportunities for lawyers, policy-makers, leading civil society actors, journalists, whistleblowers and members of the public to come together to discuss the key challenges in protecting whistleblowers in different circumstances.  By highlighting real examples – whistleblowing that revealed corporate malfeasance, government corruption, abuse in care, and environmental damage – and presenting different national legal and institutional responses so far, the conference provided a timely reminder of the role of whistleblowing to safeguard the public interest.

WIN will continue to work with Transparency International and its national chapters to help ensure that whistleblowing is understood both as crucial anti-corruption mechanism but importantly as a wider public accountability mechanism that requires long term vigilance and consideration.

Edward Snowden addresses second hearing at Council of Europe

The Council of Europe’s Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights held the second of two public hearings on mass surveillance and strengthening whistleblower protection on June 24th.  At both hearings Edward Snowden gave evidence by video link and in the second hearing, Anna Myers, the Expert Coordinator of the Whistleblowing International Network, also gave a statement.

Both witnesses pointed out that information declared pertinent to national security is typically excluded from whistleblower protections and right to information laws – both vital to ensuring proper democratic accountability. The impact of this carve-out is only just being fully understood in the US and European context but is not new to many other parts of the world where “national security” is used as the blunt instrument to silence dissent and any form of public interest whistleblowing from the outset.

In this regard, the Tshwane Principles on National Security and  Right to Information (formulated by 22 organizations and over 500 experts from more than 70 countries), which provides for a public interest defense, were timely when they were published last year. A public interest defense – which a whistleblower can claim on the basis that the information disclosed was improperly classified, relates to illegal activity, or where the public interest in its disclosure outweighs the interest in keeping it secret – is clearly vital where an unauthorized release of classified information or official secrets is automatically a crime. Moreover, such a defense is an important principle at the heart of whistleblower protection generally.  It represents another perspective on free speech that is fundamental to effective whistleblower protection.

A.Myers Statement.Council of Europe 24.06.14

 

Note: A similar version of this post is on the Government Accountability Project’s website – GAP is a founding member of WIN – see http://www.whistleblower.org.

 

Stop targeting civil society in Hungary

Stop Targeting Hungarian NGOs!

Since its re-election, the Hungarian government launched a campaign attacking the credibility of Hungarian NGOs and are striving to gain controlling power over their funding distributed independently from the government. We believe that a dynamic and independent civil society plays a fundamental role in a democratic society, as it is one of the key checks and balances to governing power. As demonstrated by Putin’s Russia, the harassment of the civil sector could easily lead to the criminalization of NGOs and could effectively hinder their work. We stand in solidarity with the Hungarian NGOs and call on the Hungarian and all other governments to refrain from harassing civil society!

Background:

After the widespread criticism due to the elimination of independent institutions, the dismantling of the framework of parliamentarianism, the opening of the second term of the Orban’s government in 2014 has seen even more challenges: new impetus was given to questioning the credibility and hindering the independent financing of autonomous civil organizations representing a counterbalance to the government.

The Norway Financial Mechanism (Norway Grants) is part of an agreement between the EU and Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein about funding projects in less-developed European economies. The Hungarian government launched its attack against the Norwegian Civic Fund (NCTA) at the beginning of April, only a day after its massive re-election victory. The NCTA is a small portion of the Norway Grants, which is distributed by a consortium of four Hungarian foundations, which have previously administered the grants with great success. The accusation is that through the four foundations, Norway is trying to influence Hungarian politics. Norway firmly denied the accusations.

When the Norwegian government rejected the charges, the Hungarian government sent agents of the Government Control Office (KEHI) to audit the Fund’s administering organizations. The government has led an escalating campaign accusing the four NGOs of political meddling that helped Norway disburse the grants. It said KEHI would audit Okotars, the consortium leader NGO, but sent KEHI agents to two other partner organizations as well. The foundations were threatened with the suspension of their tax number if refused cooperation. The legal basis of the audit is disputed by the administering organizations of the consortium.

In the past years, NGOs, especially those critical of or countering the ideology of the government (LGBT+ rights groups) were subjected to defamatory attempts. On May 30, 2014, an article was published stating that the government blacklisted independent Hungarian civil organizations that have benefitted from the Norwegian Civic Fund (NCTA) on the basis of their alleged political affiliation. In an emailed statement to Reuters on this day, the government said it had no intention of fighting individual NGOs, but it repeated the charges that the grants sought to exert political influence.

Civil organizations’ opportunities for legal advocacy and the room to maneuver are becoming smaller, and media publications may be henceforward constrained to exercise self-censorship because regulations of the media law curtailing the freedom of speech and judicial practices would hold them back from publishing articles criticizing the government. All these steps make Hungary resemble Putin’s Russia, where, with the silencing of the last free voices, all the defenses of the democratic state are being demolished.

According to Atlatszo.hu – one of the blacklisted NGOs: the scandal sparked by the Hungarian government over the Norwegian funding of local NGOs has escalated to the extent that groups advocating environmental concerns and anti-corruption are being targeted by the authorities. The only tangible reason to be found is that the Hungarian government doesn’t approve of funding being distributed to organizations, which they do not approve of.
As things stand, the organizations that are receiving or have received a grant are prone to face investigations from the authorities, with the declared intent to decide whether they were legitimate recipients of the Norwegian tax-payers’ money, or whether they were handpicked to represent niche political interests that go against the will of the Hungarian majority.

According to the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, another blacklisted NGO: These are steps in a series of government actions aiming to silence people, from ordinary citizens to the press to civil society, and prevent them from voicing any criticism against the government. An examination of government actions since 2010 shows that the elimination of independent institutions, the dismantling of the frameworks of parliamentarianism and the trivialization of opposition voices already started during the previous government cycle. Such measures include the Media Law, the curtailing of the Constitutional Court’s authority, the elimination of the institution of the independent Data Protection Ombudsman, the transformation of the election system and the means of approval and contents of the Fundamental Law.

As part of the government’s silencing efforts of independent voices, the editor-in-chief of one of the largest Hungarian online news sites, Origo.hu, was forced unexpectedly to leave his job on June 2. On the last week of May, the news site published a series on János Lázár, Secretary of State for the Prime Minister’s Office, noting that his recent spending of 6.500 EUR from public funds on travel expenses was presumably unjustified. In response, János Lázár exercised visible pressure. It is probably due to this incident that the editor-in-chief of Origo.hu, who was said to have resisted the political pressure exercised by the publishing company, was forced to quit yesterday. The editorial board of Origo.hu expressed its disagreement with dismissing the editor-in-chief and considers the conditions for continuing its work insecure. Since June 2, a number of staff members quit their jobs. The management of Origo.hu denied the accusations about political pressure.

Recommended articles, statements:

http://www.liberties.eu/en/news/putins-methods-against-criticism

http://norvegcivilalap.hu/en/government_attacks_hungarian_NGOs

http://english.atlatszo.hu/2014/06/03/hungarian-govt-targets-ngos-atlatszo-hu-is-also-under-assault/

http://www.transparency.org/news/pressrelease/transparency_international_calls_for_an_immediate_end_to_intimidation_

http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/06/02/us-hungary-norway-funding-ngo-idUSKBN0ED1QW20140602?feedType=RSS&irpc=932

http://www.hrw.org/news/2014/06/05/dispatches-harassing-civil-society-hungary

About the constitutional de-constructing:

http://tasz.hu/en/news/hclu-hungarian-example

Hungarian whistleblowing case unfolds

The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (Tasz) is representing a former staff member of the Hungarian National Tax and Customs Administration, András Horváth, who went public with information about companies committing VAT fraud with the assistance of the National Tax and Customs Administration (NAV) only after trying unsuccessfully on several occasions to raise his concerns within the Administration itself and to the Government.

This is exactly the type of case that all member states of the Council of Europe, the European Union (Hungary is a member of both) and signatories of the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (Hungary ratified UNCAC in 2005) should want to get right. Hungary’s new Whistleblower Protection law came into force on the 1st January 2014 so Horváth, unwittingly perhaps, is the first to test the strength of the new law which Tasz already considers weak in many regards. An earlier whistleblower law called the Protection of Fair Procedures Law failed to make much of an impact not least because the Hungarian government never set up the agency the law envisioned to receive whistleblower reports and enforce the law.

But the description of what has happened to András Horváth so far – the police raid on his home and the court’s order upholding this action which Tasz argues was unlawful – does not bode well, at least in the short term, for those who hope the Hungarian Government will put its energies and resources into fighting corruption rather than attacking those who are trying to help it do the right thing.

For details of this case and the work of Tasz please see Why was the search of the whistleblower’s home unlawful? published today (7 April 2014) on its website.

Please note that Tasz and other important Hungarian civil society organisations K-Monitor and Atlatszo.hu are participating organisations in the WIN network.

“Whistleblower” is not a bad word….

Whistleblowing – speaking up in the public interest about wrongdoing or risk – is at its core an act of loyalty and concern for the greater good. The English term “whistleblower” has evolved from a  negative term connoting “snitch” or “tattle-tell” to one that is perceived as much more nuetral or positive.

Now more than ever, whistleblowing is associated with loyal individuals who try to speak up in the interests of others, including the interests of their employers or the service they are meant to provide. It is also understood that whistleblowers most often try to alert those closest to the problem first – their employer, their union, the person responsible, or an appropriate authority – and only go public with the information when there are few or no realistic or safe options available.

Whistleblowing is a democratic accountability mechanism and whistleblowers have saved lives and livelihoods, often with very little thanks or reward. Punishing and branding the messenger and paying little or no heed to the message does us all a disservice.

WIN members and experts have started to share the terms that are being increasingly used in their languages and in their laws. These highlight how perceptions are changing and how more positive terminology is being chosen or suggested.

By talking about whistleblowing internationally, it is hoped that a greater cross-cultural dialogue will help us consider why we might want to normalise the term.

When looking at the table below, think of your own language and the terminology that is used – perjorative terms instantly conjure up notions of betrayal and disloyalty but are often kneejerk reactions rather than a proper consideration of the facts.

Global Words — Whistleblower