Europe’s Unexpected Whistle-blowing Capital
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because if they can fight corruption, so can anyone.
By Laura Secorun Palet
Višnja Marilović is an accountant in Sarajevo. Her days have a certain rhythm. But the rhythm became arrhythmia the day her boss asked her to file an invoice for 160 beds … kind of an eye-catching number for a small sports center. Unless he was planning on building the world’s biggest blanket fort, something was fishy. Marilović had a rather strong suspicion that her supervisor was furnishing his newly bought hotel with public funds.
She denounced him and thought her part was done, they moved on. Unfortunately, no. She says she experienced months of death threats, was fired, had a bodyguard and had to tell her children they couldn’t play alone in the street.
That’s when she first heard the word: whistleblower. “I didn’t even know what it meant at the time,” she says laughing. “I thought it was maybe an insult.”
Perhaps. But what may have been an insult then is now anything but. You would think most countries in Europe, especially the Western, wealthier ones, would have legislation to protect whistleblowers like Marilović. You’d be wrong. In fact, only one country on the continent — and it’s not France, Germany, Spain or the U.K. — has such a protection-before-trial mechanism. Guess who’s leading a revolution to change all that? It starts with a B.
Being a whistleblower is no joke in Bosnia — three years ago another whistleblower there was killed with a car bomb.
As of January of last year, the Bosnian government protects people who denounce corruption. This law means whistleblowers have the right to come forward with information, the right to keep their jobs when they do and the right to get police protection before a judge assesses their claims. The last point “is a major step forward, because whistleblowers often spend years in court before they get any support,” explains Mark Worth, manager of the International Whistleblower Project at Blueprint for Free Speech, an Australian nonprofit. Being a whistleblower is no joke in Bosnia — three years ago another whistleblower there was killed with a car bomb. Marilović is now helping to head the movement inside her country, and the Balkans at large, by helping pass further groundbreaking whistle-blowing-protection laws.
Given the high levels of public corruption in the Balkans (the region ranks 48th in the index of transparency in the world), it seems almost ironic that Bosnians are the ones standing behind whistleblowers. Yet it is precisely where there is the least accountability that whistleblowers are needed the most. According to USAID, corruption costs Bosnia one billion dollars every year. That’s a price its stagnant economy (growing at about 1 percent yearly) simply can’t afford. Bosnia is also in a rush to prove itself worthy of joining the European Union; showing progress on the transparency front will give the nation significant brownie points.
The Bosnian law has already seen its first success case: Danko Bogdanović, the chief of customs of a small town who reported corruption within the Indirect Tax Authority, leading to the arrest of 50 people. But it was far from an easy process. While the law guarantees that whistleblowers keep their jobs, the man was “suspended” for two years before being put back on the payroll. “It was ‘mission impossible,’ but we made it,” remembers Marilović who now works for the Center for Responsible Democracy LUNA, a pro–whistleblower NGO, and has co-founded a private consultancy to help public and private actors implement their own transparency policies. So far, two cities in Bosnia have already built their own whistle-blowing schemes. And the Ministry of Defense is working closely with them on how to best implement the law within its ranks.
The next step: a few amendments that will tighten the deadlines for protection and reinstatement (one month tops) and the first drafts of the state-level bill. Meanwhile, other countries in the region are following in Bosnia’s footsteps. Montenegro and Serbia have both since passed whistle-blowing laws, and similar texts are being drafted in Albania and Bulgaria. “The Balkans are truly leading the way for the rest of Europe,” says Worth.
To be sure, not all public authorities are thrilled at the thought of promoting a culture of denunciation. In a country with an official unemployment rate of 46 percent (it’s around 25 percent in Greece and 10 percent in France), public institutions are the largest providers of jobs. And the current law works only at a federal level, meaning that private companies and state-level institutions still need their own particular policies. This is why Stephen Kohn, supervising attorney at the National Whistleblower Legal Defense and Education Fund, says the Bosnian law is missing something crucial: monetary incentives. “You need to give people a good reason to do something that will inevitably tear their lives apart,” he says.
Sitting in a café in the outskirts of Sarajevo, Bojan Bajić says that incentives would be great, “but the law would have never passed with them.” The former journalist and left-wing politician, who has since become the country’s most prominent whistleblower advocate knows that change will be slow-going. “Of course, many powerful people won’t want to implement the law,” he says with a cheeky smile, “but if we keep talking about it, they will have no choice.”
And if this war-torn, corruption-riddled, financially struggling nation can pull off robust whistleblower protection, what’s Germany’s excuse?