Laws in the region do not adequately protect whistleblowers or provide effective follow-up mechanisms to their disclosures.
By Katica Djurovic for Southeast European Times in Belgrade -- 17/12/12
Serbia's parliament is planning to draft a whistleblower protection law next year. [AFP]
Governments in the region are improving whisleblowers' protection and passing laws to guarantee their rights in an effort to broaden the fight against crime and corruption.
Whistleblowers are people who report corruption, criminal acts and irregularities. In some countries, more than half of corruption cases are reported by whistleblowers, far above the percentage of reported cases by other formal mechanisms of control including police action. However, in the Balkan region, the number of cases uncovered by whistleblowers is insignificant.
Legal systems in the region currently fail to protect whistleblowers, and the majority of the time those who report the crimes face the consequences, whistleblowers' organisations said.
In Serbia, a law on whistleblowers' protection is set to be drafted by mid-2013.
"This law is of a huge importance for the systemic fight against corruption. In order to ensure proper use and implementation of the law, NGOs and whistleblowers will [participate] in the creation of [the legislation]," Nikola Selakovic, Serbia minister of justice, told SETimes.
"The law will provide adequate protection from retaliation for those people who decide to report corruption and irregularities," he said.
In 2010, Bojana Bokorov, an assistant professor at the Medical University in Novi Sad, notified officials about the waiting lists' trade at the university's clinic for radiology therapy. She said some doctors were giving an advantage to foreign patients who were paying for radiology treatments over Serbian patients who were receiving treatments for free.
In May this year, Bokorov was fired from her job. The Anti-corruption Agency of Serbia awarded her whistleblower status, which means that she cannot be fired until the claims on alleged corruption are investigated. So far, authorities haven't taken action on the case.
She sued the university and the head of the radiology department for harassment at work, but her lawsuit has disappeared from the basic court in Novi Sad. According to the ministry, a memorandum of co-operation between the ministry and Serbian whistleblowers' organisation Pistaljka will be signed by the end of the month.
"The state and the whistleblowers have to be allies in the fight against the corruption. The state has to provide adequate protection from mobbing and harassment at work and other kind of retaliations, such as threats and layoffs," Selakovic said.
Vladimir Radomirovic, a member of Pistaljka, said he expects that any retaliation against whistleblowers would be treated as a criminal offense and that the authorities would continue to act on all whistleblower complaints, whether anonymous or not.
"As a whistleblower, I am compromised in a social, professional and financial way. Whistleblowers who report corruption are in most cases left jobless, alone, unaided, exposed to unprecedented pressures, threats and lawsuits. In this context, whistleblower protection is more than necessary. Also, it means that the state understands the risks we take," Radomirovic told SETimes.
Enacting protection legislation for whistleblowers would increase the number of corruption cases uncovered. [AFP]
Milica Petrovic, an electro distribution employee in Belgrade, said whistleblowing is a huge responsibility and not an easy step to take.
"I would have to think twice before I decide to report someone under these circumstances. I don't like injustice, but I don't want to lose my job either. Sometimes, the best option is to focus on your work and ignore everything that happens around you," Petrovic told SETimes.
"If there was a law which protects me, I would report irregularities, but only if someone can really protect me from being fired or at least help me find new job if I loose it," she said.
With the advancement of the fight against corruption, many of the countries in the region plan to adopt the necessary legislation in the near future.
In Montenegro, there were only three cases of public whistleblowing in the last three years. NGO representatives in Montenegro say the number is so small because citizens fear for their jobs and their lives, therefore preferring not to report corruption and crimes.
"Effective legal provisions and enforcement mechanisms are necessary to build an effective whistleblowing mechanism. So far, that is missing. We receive many anonimous complaints because people trust us and prefer reporting the case of corruption to us than going to the state institutions," Ana Novakovic, executive director at Centre for Development of NGOs, told SETimes.
A whistleblowers law is set to be adopted in the country next year.
According to Novakovic, lack of legal protection is just one dimension of the problem. There is a political dimenstion of the problem too, he said.
"We don't have an ambient for a real rule of law that support people who want to talk about irregualrities in public or private sector," Novakovic said.
In Bulgaria there is no free standing whistleblower protection law, but regulations are provided by the administrative procedure code, including the right to file signal for corruption and infringements as well as the general protection of persecution.
Although there is some standard protection in the penal code, there is no specific protection for civil servants who report cases of corruption.
"I wouldn't file a signal for corruption, because I wouldn't feel safe for my family and myself," Peter Markov, an engineer from Sofia, told SETimes. "The law provides for the protection of personal information, but I am not sure it is always fully respected. On the other hand, I can send an anonymous signal, but it will be end up in the waste paper basket."
SETimes correspondent Svetla Dimitrova in Sofia contributed to this report.