Whistleblowers may become the new heroes in the Czech Republic
The Whistleblowing International Network (WIN) is delighted to publish an English translation of this article from Oživení, a WIN Member based in the Czech Republic. The piece highlights the value of empirical research into public perceptions of whistleblowers and the cultural connotations of the terminology of whistleblowing. Such studies can be an important advocacy tool in the fight for stronger whistleblowing protection rights.
Whistleblowers may become the new heroes in the Czech Republic
Lenka Svobodová and Luisa Blahová, Oživení
The Czech public have been found to feel positively towards whistleblowers, even though most are unfamiliar with the term ‘whistleblowing’ itself.
Recounting the personal stories of whistleblowers is effective at illustrating the concept and increasing public awareness and support. Whistleblowers are an essential safeguard in society and need to be properly protected. However, a new Czech draft law on whistleblowing protection raises serious concerns.
Public perception of whistleblowers is a challenge
In 2020, Oživení published new research into the public perception of whistleblowers in the Czech Republic. 2,000 people were asked how they felt about whistleblowers; if they had themselves witnessed wrongdoing at work and, if so, whether they had reported it. The study wanted to uncover the main reasons people were discouraged from raising concerns.
Most respondents (71%) said that they were not familiar with the term ‘whistleblower.’ Younger and more educated people were more likely to know the word itself, perhaps thanks to a better knowledge of the English language. Once the term had been explained to participants, the majority (56%) reported that they felt mostly positive emotions towards whistleblowers. Only a very small minority (3%) said that they were angered by whistleblowing - a key finding for establishing an effective public education and advocacy campaign.
We believe that where we can explain the term ‘whistleblowing’ by recounting stories and personal experiences, public support for stronger protection of whistleblowers will follow.
One disturbing finding was that almost one-fifth of the participants (18%) had directly witnessed unethical or unlawful behaviour at work. Most had raised the issue with their colleagues (38%), family (34%) or their superior (22%), but for those who had tried to address the issue, very few (18%) were satisfied with how the situation turned out.
Half of respondents (53%) stated that their disclosure had been ignored. This fits with similar findings that scepticism that issues would be resolved (34%) is the main reason why participants decided not to raise their concern. Another significant reason was fear of job loss (24%).
Such findings correspond with the aims of a new EU Directive on Whistleblowing, which seeks to effectively protect whistleblowers and emphasises the importance in organisations providing feedback and follow-up to those who report concerns. It is essential that whistleblowers are kept informed as to whether their report is being addressed, otherwise they will lose confidence in the effectiveness of the reporting system, which discourages reporting wrongdoing in the future.
Whistleblowers – the extraordinary everyday heroes
Whistleblowing is associated primarily with the fight against corruption, but research suggests that support for whistleblowers is higher in cases involving matters of public health or environmental protection. These findings are consistent with recent cases in the Czech Republic where whistleblowers played a key role in exposing such abuses.
In March 2020 during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, a paramedic publicly disclosed in an open letter to a regional governor that there was a lack of medical protective equipment. The paramedic was subject to retaliatory action by the regional governor and their employer. A newly elected regional governor has since publicly apologized to the paramedic for the retaliation and suffering.
Another high-profile case, currently the subject of much discussion in the Czech Republic, concerns an ecological catastrophe on the river Bečva. Large amounts of toxic substances were released in the river in September 2020, killing many fish and destroying surrounding nature. The police investigation remains ongoing and the cause is yet unknown. According to media reports, an employee of a nearby chemical plant blew the whistle about an unreported accident which may have been connected to the incident. The whistleblowing disclosure has increased speculation of a possible connection between the ecological destruction and the nearby plant, which belongs to the Prime Minister's Trust.
Hope for effective legislation
Whistleblowers are currently poorly protected under Czech law, despite several unsuccessful attempts to legislate for increased legal protection of whistleblowing. As a post-communist country, the Czech Republic was not culturally ready due to the historically negative connotation of reporting information to the authorities. The new EU Directive provides an incentive for faster change, but given the Czech Republic awaits elections in the Chamber of Deputies in October 2021, it remains uncertain whether any new proposal to implement the Directive will be adopted in timely manner, before the 17th of December 2021 deadline.
A current draft proposal generally follows the aims and scope of the Directive and in some sense further extends the material scope of protection to include reports of breaches of all national criminal and administrative offences regardless of their material objective. Such a law would represent significant change to the current framework for whistleblower protection I the Czech Republic, as there is currently no dedicated whistleblowing legislation.
There are some problematic aspects to this draft proposal. One key area of concern is that, aside from the standard avenues to externally report breaches such as the police, the public prosecutors office, other public bodies, the new law makes the Department of Justice (DOJ) responsible for both the oversight and enforcement of whistleblower protections. Employees of the DoJ with responsibility for handling whistleblowing concerns will be directly subordinate to the Head of the Department and political leadership and thus are at risk of removal from post by the Head of the Department without need for any proper substantiation. This raises serious doubts as to whether the law would meet the EU Directive’s requirement that an external whistleblowing authority be independent.
The security of the proposed reporting channels is also considered insufficient as reporting information by email will likely be considered adequate - despite the availability of online solutions to enable two-way encrypted reporting such as SecureDropbox and GlobaLeaks, amongst others.
Furthermore, a substantial part of the legislations provisions on the establishment of secure confidential internal reporting systems defers to the future adoption of yet unknowable regulation and guidelines. As the draft legislation chose not to utilize the Directives provision to enable postponing the introducing of such an obligation on the private sector (until 2023), legal certainty for companies and employers is significantly undermined as comprehensive guidelines for organisations is not foreseen to be introduced in time.
Supporting whistleblowers is our mission.
Oživení is a non-governmental organization that supports active citizens and whistleblowers. It has offered a free legal consultancy center since 2011, runs a secure reporting mechanism GlobaLeaks since 2015 and in 2020 started a new comprehensive web page piskamfauly.cz to inform the public and potential whistleblowers of their rights and the process of reporting. Oživení is also setting up wider coalition of NGOs and other professionals to provide support to whistleblowers. To read more about Ozivenei work and other Members and Associates of the Whistlebllow international network see here.
WIN members, associates and civil society campaigners continue to monitor implementation of the EU Directive on whistleblowing in all 27 Member States, including through the EU Whistleblowing Meter.