Whistle-blowers leaking information in the public interest play a crucial role in upholding democracies, and must therefore be better protected from prosecution, reprisals and threats.
This was the key message voiced by many MEPs in yesterday’s (6 July) debate with Commission Vice-President Jyrki Katainen and Ivan Korčok from the Slovak Presidency of the Council on how to improve legal safeguards for people revealing illegal or unethical activities in the public or private sectors.
”Whistle-blowers are important in the fight against corruption as well as tax avoidance, and necessary when it comes to strengthening the European rule of law,” said Jyrki Katainen.
“We also need a clear legal basis in order to protect them, and that is why the Commission has already taken steps through sectoral legislation and guidelines to further enhance their status. We are currently assessing if more action on EU level could be introduced.”
Ivan Korčok agreed: ”In recent years, several developments have highlighted the importance of whistle-blowers seeking to inform the general public of serious misconduct within different sectors. These people also deserve our protection.” He was among others referring to the Panama Papers scandal.
“Should the Commission therefore chose to propose new legislation in order to further boost and protect the role of whistle-blowers, the Council is ready to deal with it,” Ivan Korčok said.
In the debate, most MEPs argued that further EU legislation is needed to protect whistle-blowers. This should also include EU-wide rules to align and strengthen national laws, they added.
The debate was prompted by the recent conviction of "Luxleaks" whistle-blowers Antoine Deltour and Raphaël Halet by a Luxembourg court for having revealed favourable tax deals granted to multinationals by the Luxembourg authorities.
The debate also follows the parliament’s adoption in April of the Trade Secrets Directive which tried to find a balance between the need to protect trade secrets and the right to disclose wrongdoing.
The directive introduced an EU-wide definition of “trade secret”, meaning information which is secret, has commercial value because it is secret, and has been subject to reasonable steps to keep it secret. It obliges EU member states to ensure that victims of misuse of trade secrets are able to defend their rights in court and to seek compensation.
For the first time, the protection of whistleblowers was explicitly mentioned in a European piece of legislation – but apparently, judging from the debate yesterday, the protection did not go far enough.
Under the Trade Secrets directive, victims of the theft or misuse of trade secrets will not have the right to redress if a trade secret was acquired, used or disclosed for certain purposes, such as to reveal misconduct, wrongdoing or illegal activity, provided that the respondent acted in order to protect the general public interest.
The Green/European Free Alliance – group was critical against the Directive and stated after the vote in April that it included an “unnecessarily broad definition of what constitutes a trade secret” and “created major uncertainties about the role of whistleblowers and investigative journalists.”
Whistleblowing is usually defined as unauthorised disclosure or reporting of corporate information to people and media outside the organisation (external disclosure). Whistleblowing, however, can also take place inside the organisation when for example an employee reports to his manager that wrong-doing or malpractice has occurred (internal disclosure).
It has been a hot topic in the European Commission since 1999 when 20 commissioners were forced to resign following the disclosure of irregularities. Following this incident, the Commission adopted new rules in the internal staff regulations.
Whistleblowing protection is not only an issue in the EU institutions but even more so in the member states where most corruption occurs. A study in 2012 by Transparency International (“Money, politics, power – corruption risks in Europe”) showed that the vast majority of EU member states have not introduced legislation on whistle-blowing protection.
The Brussels Times (Source: European Parliament)