Witnesses and Whistleblowing
In some jobs more than others, you may witness something that seems like it might be a bigger issue than your HR office can handle. What if you discover that the law is being broken? Or you learn that the company you work for is giving or taking bribes? You feel like you want to do the right thing by exposing that, but you are also scared of losing your job or becoming tied up in the situation. What do you do and who do you tell? You could make wrongdoing such as this public by reporting them to the police, the government or the media. Doing so would make you a ‘whistleblower’. The hope is that by revealing these acts, by blowing the whistle, the resulting legal or social pressure would put an end to practices that might be forbidden, unsafe, corrupt, or illegal.
In 2012, Transparency International Latvia (“Delna”) reviewed whistleblowing in Latvian law and society and found that legally and socially Latvia trailed behind other nations when it came to protecting and supporting whistleblowers. How was that possible? The status, procedures, and protections for a whistleblower were poorly defined in law. This meant that anyone exposing wrongdoing in their workplace would be vulnerable to social and legal retaliation. As a consequence, doing the right thing carried a lot of risk for very little hope of reward, so there was no incentive to report corruption.
Balancing Legal and Social Reform
Lativia’s third OGP action plan tackled precisely that: new measures were adopted in October 2018 and took effect in May 2019, which included updates to legal descriptions, procedures, and protections, accompanied by a public awareness campaign. The goal of the campaign – by informing the public of the new legal processes and the social benefits of whistleblowing – was to show Latvians that reporting corruption did make sense, because of how essential it was to fight for a fairer and juster society.
Latvia’s third OGP action plan included measures and recommendations in areas like lobbying regulations for public officials, governance of state-owned enterprises, open government at the local level, and anti-corruption in the healthcare sector. Alongside these measures, the inclusion of whistleblowing reforms was part of a campaign to increase transparency and honesty in public and corporate life.
As one of OGP’s main partners, Inese Kušķe of the Public Administration Policy Department in the State Chancellery of Latvia took a key role in developing and implementing the Whistleblower Protection Act together with civil society organizations. She has emphasized that making the new regulations effective requires both a legal and social approach.
The legal side updates and clarifies the definitions of whistleblowing and what legal protections are given to people exposing wrongdoing. This includes support and mediation provided by a representative of the state chancellery, and rights to anonymity, so that when someone reports corruption, they are given reliable guidance and would not need to fear legal reprisal.
The social side aims to spread awareness of the new protections and procedures, to change public opinion about the benefits that whistleblowing provides society with, and to show that what previously seemed too risky is now much safer. Resources and reporting channels are brought together in one website so the Latvian public can easily see all the information in one place: what qualifies as a public interest worth reporting, who the appropriate authorities are for reporting, and what support and protections are available.
The campaign also aims to present whistleblowers as good, responsible citizens with social responsibility and democratic values, whose acts strengthen political and corporate transparency, and ultimately Latvian democracy. With this campaign the Latvian government is also expressing its own commitment to the values of democratic fairness, freedom of information, and anti-corruption.
Power of the People; Uptick in Public Whistleblowing
Despite some initial hesitancy from the corporate world and public administrations, the new initiatives were adopted without public opposition. The legal protections extend to both the public and private sectors, and the mediation by the State Chancellery is given to whistleblowers from either. Inese Taurina of Transparency International Latvia says that, despite this, reports of wrongdoing since the campaign have been mostly from the public sector. Her organization is now trying to more specifically target the private sector. To do this, they have developed a handbook specifically aimed at workers in small and mid-sized enterprises.
The previously reported mindset in Latvia that there is “no sense” in reporting corruption, seems to have begun to shift:
The Independent Reporting Mechanism suggests that the reforms and public awareness campaign have had some impact on people’s willingness to report corruption or impropriety. While the legal protections are immediate, the social campaign, of course, requires time to achieve its goals. The uneven prevalence of whistleblowing across the public/private divide points the way forward, with efforts now targeted at encouraging more people in the corporate world to come forward with their reports of wrongdoing and fight for greater transparency, a more just society, and a stronger democracy in Latvia.
PHOTO: A poster from Latvia’s whistleblower protection campaign. “See. Hear. Talk.”
Credit: Valsts kanceleja/ State Chancellery of Latvia