Covert crimes such as corruption are extremely difficult to detect because it is in the interests of all parties to conceal them. However, corruption, fraud, violation and even unethical behaviour can seriously damage individuals, organisations, their finances, reputation and well-being. The effects of corruption and fraud often go further, undermining fair competition, equal opportunities for citizens and businesses, and trust in the state. It is therefore important that people who witness an offense report it as soon as possible. Whistleblowing, or reporting misconduct, is therefore important both for the exercise of civil rights and freedoms and for the protection of democratic values.
We see the following obstacles in advancing whistleblowing in Estonia:
- Historical background. Complaints were propagandized in Soviet society to prevent and apprehend anti-regime people and activities. Loyalty as a value is therefore associated with non-betrayal and turning a blind eye, and trust in state power is lower than in the old democracies. Compared to the EU average, 6% more people consider the fact that they do not want to betray others to be an obstacle to reporting (EU 19% vs. Estonia 25%). A realization that corruption and fraud in private interests have a negative effect on the well-being and resources of all of us in a free democratic country such as Estonia is yet to be comprehended.
In order to solve the problem, we will speak on behalf of the association in the media, draw attention to the downsides of the cases made public as well as draw attention to the best practices of whistleblower protection. We conduct communication campaigns to nudge public opinion and offer training to organizations to change individuals’ experiences and attitudes towards whistleblowing.
- Insufficient legal protection for the whistleblower. As Estonian legislation offers limited protection to whistleblowers, it cannot be assured that sufficient channels and measures have been established to keep the confidentiality of the whistleblower or that no retaliatory measures will be taken against the person later on. According to an ESRC study, the whistleblower suffers an average loss of $284,585 due to reporting, so it is important that the law provides reasonable assurance prior reporting for such loss not to occur.
To address the issue, we contribute by talking about the best international practices and recommendations made by Transparency International (TI) and the Whistleblowing International Network (WIN) in regards to the transposition of the EU Directive. Our aim is to ensure that the law is horizontal (to protect the reporting of violations in all areas), easy to understand and provides certainty and protection for the person considering reporting. In practice, protection means that the identity of the whistleblower is kept confidential and that he or she will not be retaliated against, for example, through threats, dismissal or legal actions. It is certainly important to ensure that the law excludes the provision of protection to those who knowingly give incorrect information.
- Organizations do not support reporting. Surveys show that about ⅔ out of 90% of people report a problem first in the organization where the violation was noticed. This behavior is in line with the desire to resolve the problem as quickly as possible and close to the source, in order to avoid its escalation, the attention of the authorities and the damage to the reputation should the case become public. Thus, organizations need to make sure that reporting takes place to a person, entity, or channel that has the ability to investigate issues quickly. For this, it is necessary to set up reporting mechanisms and to make sure they are credible.
To solve the problem, we regularly conduct the online course “Whistleblowing mechanisms: online course for practitioners”, which provides basic knowledge about creating and improving whistleblowing mechanisms in the organization. In addition, all the videos in the online course and the publication “Whistleblowing mechanism in the company. Toolbox.” are available in both Estonian and Russian. We also offer trainings and consultations for both public and private organizations that want to raise the awareness about the content and processes of reporting among employees or want to improve their reporting mechanisms.
- People’s awareness of the need and ways to report is low. As a result of the above-mentioned problems, people often do not know which wrongdoing should be reported, under what conditions protection is available and where and how the wrongdoing should be reported. According to the results of the Eurobarometer on corruption (2019), people do not know where to report a case of corruption (22% of respondents consider this to be an obstacle), it is not worth the effort of reporting it, or everyone knows about the case, but no one does anything about it. Passivity, ignorance and lack of information prevent wrongdoings from being reported and thus coming to an end.
To solve the problem, the association will set up an Advocacy and Legal Advice Centre (ALAC), which will be opened at the time the Whistleblower Protection Act will enter into force (expected in summer 2022). The aim of ALAC is to provide free information to those who are considering reporting or who have experienced retaliation. Information is provided more generally on the website as well as in direct communication with people. In this way, the number of people who report in a secure way and who do not experience the negative consequences of reporting increases. Whistleblowing works best when the fact of reporting is not known to anyone other than the person handling the report and the wrongdoing is stopped without exposing the whistleblower.