Ringing the Bell: Protecting Whistleblowers in Central and Eastern Europe
01 Dec 2023
December 1st, 2023
Throughout history, whistleblowing has been an essential tool to hold the powerful to account and protect people from dangerous, illegal, or unethical malfeasance. Informants have helped save public funds, expose criminal enterprises, protect consumers, and even prevent nuclear meltdowns.
And yet, for all the good that has come from the brave act of whistleblowing, whistleblowers themselves are often left open to prosecution, persecution, and abuse by the accused. While laws have been drafted to protect those who speak out, implementation isn’t always consistent.
To raise awareness for whistleblower protection laws and encourage their adoption in Central and Eastern Europe, the CEELI Institute is working with international and regional experts, as well as civil society organizations to encourage EU member states to protect the rights of whistleblowers.
During a two-day roundtable in Prague, in November, experts from Australia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czechia, France, Hungary, Poland, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania, the Netherlands, the United States, and the United Kingdom gathered to discuss what can be done to guard those who risk everything by refusing to stay silent.
“Paper shields provide no help to whistleblowers,” said Tom Devine, the legal director at the Government Accountability Project, and an advisor on the CEELI project. “Only if these rights become accessible, workable, and actually used will the democratic promise of the European Union’s directive be realized.”
In 2019, the European Union implemented protections for those who vocalize wrongdoing, through the adoption of a landmark whistleblower protections measure: Directive 2019/1937. The EU directive was hailed as a milestone for integrity and accountability in Europe.
But since then, local adoption and implementation have proven challenging, as a new report from CEELI points out. Now, almost four years after the directive was finalized, and two years since it was due to be transposed, implementation remains incomplete.
Ida Nowers, law and advocacy manager at the Whistleblowing International Network, said that 25 of the EU’s 27 member states (excluding Poland and Estonia) have moved to formalize the EU directive, but implementation and effectiveness continue to fall short.
In Hungary, for instance, potential whistleblowers are confronted with conflicting laws and regulations that can leave them vulnerable to reprisals. While Hungary has begun incorporating the EU directive, older, less protective measures remain on the books, creating two legal tiers, and lots of uncertainty.
“This means that a whistleblower cannot be sure what law their reporting will fall under – the lower level of protection or the EU protection,” said Sandor Lederer, director of K-Monitor, which works to expose corruption in Hungarian politics. This discrepancy has reportedly prevented potential informants in Hungary from coming forward, even in some of the highest-profile cases.
In Romania, whistleblowers must report wrongdoing directly to their employers, rather than to an independent body, which discourages reporting, said Cezara Grama, a rule of law expert at Expert Forum, a think tank in Bucharest.
Even in the Czech Republic, which has adopted legislation to implement the EU directive, a lack of legal resources for whistleblowers has troubled civil society actors. “Are we happy we have a law? Yes. Are we happy with how the law was adopted? Not so much,” said Ondřej Kopečný, director of Transparency International Czech Republic.
There is at least one bright spot in Central and Eastern Europe: Slovakia. Slovakia has a strong whistleblower protection law, which was recently updated to comply with the EU directive, and the country’s whistleblowing framework is underpinned by an independent office.
“In Slovakia, which has a history of corruption, our independent position, in combination with specific powers, gives us free reign within the limit of the law to protect whistleblowers,” said Zuzana Dlugošová, president of the country’s Whistleblower Protection Office. “This in turn has helped win public support.”
To be sure, work remains. “The EU Directive was motivated by recognition of the importance of whistleblowers to a democratic society, concern about the mistreatment of these courageous truth-tellers, and belief that a better paradigm was possible,” said Kieran Pender, an expert on whistleblower protections at the Australian National University College of Law, and author of the new CEELI report presented at the roundtable.
“But the European Union, and the six jurisdictions we considered, need to continue progressing to ensure whistleblowers are protected and empowered in exposing wrongdoing and can thereby play a vital democratic role,” Pender said.
During the panel discussions at CEELI, experts discussed three recommendations to improve whistleblower protections in Europe.
First, governments should commit to ongoing legal reforms to meet or exceed the requirements of the EU directive. One area that needs particular attention is ensuring that whistleblowers can report their concerns without fear, said Wilbert Tomesen, chair of the Netherland’s Huis voor Klokkenluiders (House for Whistleblowers). For instance, he insisted that “whistleblower protection laws should include illegal surveillance of whistleblowers.”
Second, countries should follow Slovakia’s lead to create standalone, independent, well-funded whistleblower protection authorities.
Finally, leaders should ensure whistleblowers have access to low-cost, or no-cost specialized legal advice.
“Whistleblowers have a right to know what they’re getting into, to make an informed decision about one of the highest stakes decisions of their personal lives,” said Devine. “When someone gets into whistleblowing, they must finish it. If they don’t, the abuse of power will be stronger as a result, and the whistleblower will be destroyed personally.”