COVID-19 is a chilling reminder of why the world needs to protect whistleblowers

Retaliation against whistleblowers during the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a spotlight on the critical role whistleblower protection plays in the fight against bribery and corruption. OECD’s Leah Ambler and Apostolos Zampounidis argue that emergency measures should be taken to protect whistleblowers and promote reporting during the COVID-19 crisis and beyond.

We live in complex and rapidly evolving times. The world has been brought to its knees by the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the many valuable lessons learned from this pandemic will be that we need whistleblowers, and we need to protect them. Indeed, as the current crisis highlights, every time a whistleblower is silenced, the risk to public health and safety increases proportionately.

The most advanced whistleblower protection laws protect whistleblowers who disclose dangers to public health or safety. Never has this form of protection been more important than in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. A preliminary study estimates that the number of infections in China could have been reduced by up to 95% if containment and mitigation strategies such as testing, social distancing, and travel restrictions had been implemented earlier. Yet as governments implement measures to contain the pandemic, reports have come to light about attempts to silence early warnings by health workers and journalists.[1] Had these early warnings been listened to, and whistleblowers protected instead of silenced and sometimes sanctioned, the outbreak may not have reached its current scale – affecting billions of people around the world.

In response to the pandemic, governments, international organisations, companies and NGOs have embarked on massive emergency financing of containment and mitigation measures and of policy actions to avoid or mitigate an economic recession. Given the urgency, essential transparency and accountability measures are being shortcut or postponed and an OCCRP project is already compiling reports of corruption or wrongdoing relating to the pandemic. Whistleblowers are often the first to detect misconduct of this nature. Whether it is doctors reporting important medical developments; government employees reporting fraud or embezzlement in healthcare procurement; company employees reporting bribery to obtain lucrative deals in medical products or equipment; or citizens reporting misconduct in the granting of key services or rescue packages, now more than ever, people should be able to speak out without fear for their lives or livelihoods. Yet, retaliation against whistleblowers during the COVID-19 pandemic is in the world news.[2]

At both the international and national level, there is a relative legal vacuum when it comes to norms for protecting whistleblowers. The 2019 EU Whistleblower Protection Directive could change the landscape in Europe, by requiring governments and companies to introduce sweeping reforms to facilitate reporting. Under the Directive, reports to the public or media are protected when they concern an imminent or manifest danger to the public interest. Alongside this groundbreaking legislation, other international initiatives show that there is global political commitment to protecting whistleblowers, such as the 2019 G20 High Level Principles for the Effective Protection of Whistleblowers and the OECD Recommendation on Public Integrity, which calls on adherents to support an open organisational culture within the public sector, including through robust whistleblower protection frameworks. Whistleblower protection has also been identified as a priority issue to be addressed in the current review of the OECD’s 2009 Anti-Bribery Recommendation, which will complement the OECD’s Anti-Bribery Convention by further strengthening the fight against foreign bribery.

The first step for governments looking to promote reporting during the COVID-19 crisis and beyond will be to introduce harmonised, watertight legal protections for whistleblowers. The international standards are taking shape and these now need to be adapted and implemented to national contexts. The OECD, through its Working Group on Bribery and Public Governance Committee, is working to ensure these standards are reviewed and implemented among OECD countries and beyond. The second, much more difficult, step will be to instil trust and confidence in their enforcement. Even with the most watertight of legal protections, whistleblowers still have to overcome significant fear and threat to their careers, or indeed to their lives, to report.

Join us at the OECD’s Virtual Global Anti-Corruption and Integrity Forum for a discussion of Emergency measures to protect whistleblowers and promote reporting during the COVID-19 crisis and beyond on 22 May at 1400-1530 (CEST). The panel will bring together:

  • Elin Baklid-Kunz, expert in medical coding compliance and healthcare whistleblower
  • Tom Devine, the Government Accountability Project’s Legal Director who has formally or informally assisted over 7,000 whistleblowers in defending themselves against retaliation
  • Lisette van Eenennaam, Chief Integrity Officer, ABB, who designs, manages and implements the global corporate protected reporting framework
  • Inese Kušķe from Latvia’s State Chancellery who has spearheaded her country’s whistleblower protection legislation
  • Khadija Sharife from the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project and the Platform to Protect Whistleblowers in Africa (PPLAAF), which supported whistleblowers to behind the recent Luanda Leaks scandal

Get involved and submit any questions on Twitter using #OECDintegrity or through the chat during the live discussion on Zoom. The session will be recorded and subsequently posted on the OECD Anti-corruption and Integrity website.

[1] He warned of coronavirus. Here’s what he told us before he died (NY Times, 7 February 2020); [1] As China cracks down on coronavirus coverage, journalists fight back (NY Times, 14 March 2020); He Led a Top Navy Ship. Now He Sits in Quarantine, Fired and Infected (NY Times, 7 April 202); NHS staff forbidden from speaking out publicly about coronavirus (Guardian, 9 April 2020).

[2] Third Russian Doctor Falls from Hospital Window after Coronavirus Complaint (Moscow Times, 4 May 2020); Who is Rick Bright? The Coronavirus whistleblower (NY Times, 5 May 2020); Senators Want to Know if Amazon Retaliated Against Whistleblowers (NY Times, 7 May 2020).

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