Regional whistleblowers lack protection, support

14/02/2014

Whistleblowers in the region are being urged to report irregularities and cases of corruption in the public sector, but only the bravest take action.

By Drazen Remikovic for Southeast European Times in Sarajevo -- 14/02/14

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Vesna Balenovic is the founder of the Whistleblower's Association in Zagreb. [Facebook/Vesna Balenovic]

Lack of support and protection from authorities are the main reasons that whistleblowers do not come forward to report crime and corruption in public institutions, according to employees in the region.

Jasmina Jovev, the former head of Sisak County Prefect Marina Lovric Merzel's cabinet, told Croatia state television on February 2nd that Lovric Merzel ordered her to issue false bills and that the prefect used county funds for personal and party purposes.

Lovric Merzel fired Jovev a year ago.

Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic said the facts in this case should be established to see who was at fault -- Lovric Merzel or Jovev.

"Someone is in serious trouble there, either [Lovric Merzel] or the person accusing her. The accusations are about the county head pillaging the county budget," Milanovic said at a February 6th press conference.

Vesna Balenovic, the founder of the Whistleblower's Association in Zagreb, is leading a similar battle after reporting corruption in state oil company INA in 2001.

After Balenovic reported the alleged corruption, which was supposedly worth 100 million euros, to police, she was immediately fired. So far, more than 10 lawsuits by high-ranking officials and INA administrators have been filed against her.

"For this I lost my health, I suffered countless threats and blackmails. Unfortunately, I fear that the same will happen to Jasmina. Whistleblowers in Croatia are completely unprotected. There are about 200 whistleblowers who anonymously and regularly report corruption to our association, but they fear speaking publicly," Balenović told SETimes.

Experts said the state should adopt legislation to protect whistleblowers.

"I think it's been attempted in the past, but the law has never entered into force because it was always proposed by the opposition parties. Therefore, we can conclude that there is no political will for such a law," Davor Djenero, a professor at Zagreb's Faculty of Political Sciences, told SETimes.

In December, the Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) state assembly adopted a law on protection for whistleblowers, the first of its kind in the region. The legislation went into effect on January 1st.

The law provides a special status for whistleblowers, which protects them against dismissal and other harmful effects from the institution they report on. The law also stipulates that the institution must turn over all documentation on the whistleblower to investigation agencies.

''The essence of the law is that the government now protects whistleblowers from revenge or retaliation from the reported person or institution. This law also serves as a stimulus to persons who work in government institutions to report corruption or other irregularities if they know about it. This is just another in a series of important measures that the government is taking to deal with corruption,'' Sefik Dzeferovic, an MP in the BiH parliament, told SETimes.

Two years ago, the European Commission adopted its own guidelines for whistleblowing in order to encourage staff to report cases of corruption. EU officials said the guidelines reassured employees that the commission will give them advice and protection.

"The very first sentence of our guidelines make clear: 'Having procedures for raising concerns about fraud, corruption or other serious wrongdoing is relevant for all responsible organisations and for the people who work there.' I would not single out candidate countries as especially in need of such rules, it is important for everyone to have such rules," Antonio Gravili, the spokesman for the EC Inter-Institutional Relations and Administration, told SETimes.

He stressed that it is important for all organisations to encourage legitimate whistleblowing and protect legitimate whistleblowers. Each organisation should take responsibility for this, rather than relying on the state.

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''The commission goes even further. Whistleblowing isn't just a possibility, it is an obligation. As the guidelines make clear, 'Members of staff have a duty to report serious irregularities'," Gravili said.

Citizens said they are encouraged when someone comes out publicly with information about corruption.

"I would definitely report corruption if I worked at a public institution. In my opinion, the most important thing is that the public is on your side. Then you cannot lose. This fight is definitely not easy, but in the end it is worth it. All will be seeing you as a hero," Stevan Vukcevic, an electrical engineer from Podgorica, told SETimes.

What can states in the region do to encourage whistleblowing? Tell us what you think in the comments.

This content was commissioned for SETimes.com.
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