Governments must guarantee safety of COVID-19 whistleblowers

Transparency International and other civil society groups are calling on all public authorities and private sector organisations to protect those who expose harms, abuses and serious wrongdoing during the COVID-19 crisis.

Whistleblowers are one of the most effective ways to detect and prevent actions that undermine the public good, and this is especially critical in times of crisis when the normal oversight of decision-making can be weakened.  Effectively responding to this crisis requires transparency, integrity and accountability in government, and the need for regular and reliable information from public institutions.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 emergency, worrying reports concerning hospitals and public authorities retaliating against healthcare professionals for speaking out about the realities of COVID-19 have emerged worldwide, from China to the United States.

Transparency International urges decision-makers at the highest level to resist the temptation to control the flow of information and instead offer assurances to individuals who witness corruption and wrongdoing to blow the whistle.

Marie Terracol, Whistleblowing Programme Coordinator at Transparency International, said: “The need for transparency and integrity, heightened in this time of crisis where abuses can cost lives, illustrates the essential role of those who speak up in the public interest.

“National governments, public institutions and companies should listen to workers and citizens who come forward and report abuses they witness and protect them from retaliation, including in countries which still do not offer robust legal whistleblower protection.  If people feel they can safely make a difference by speaking up, more instances of abuses will be prevented and addressed, and lives might be saved.”

Even at this stage of the pandemic, the suspension of elected bodies and the use of extraordinary powers by governments have highlighted many risks to the public good.  There are numerous instances of governments clamping down on access to potentially life-saving information, as well as dozens of media reports of crime and corruption related to COVID-19.

Whistleblowers’ disclosures have in the past exposed wrongdoing and fraud, helped save millions in public funds, avoid disasters for health and the environment.  Whistleblowers’ important role in safeguarding the public good has been repeatedly proven by the scandals they uncover.

Yet whistleblowers risk their career, their livelihood and sometimes their personal safety to expose wrongdoing that threatens the public interest.  They may be fired, sued, blacklisted, arrested, threatened or, in extreme cases, assaulted or killed.

“Once we have overcome this crisis, countries should ensure that their legislation effectively protects whistleblowers, and adopt and enforce whistleblowing laws that are in line with best practice and international standards,” added Terracol.  

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