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OpEd: World Whistleblowers Day 2024

Opinion Editorial by Aishath Alsan Sadiq, Senior Legal Coordinator at Transparency Maldives.

23 June 2024, MVT 12:09
Aerial view of the capital city of Male. PHOTO/SOCIAL MEDIA
23 June 2024, MVT 12:09

June 23rd marks the World Whistleblowers Day, a significant occasion dedicated to recognizing the courageous efforts of whistleblowers who champion transparency and accountability in both public and private sectors. These individuals play a vital role in exposing wrongdoings, injustices and corruption, and paving the way for justice and meaningful reforms.

The Whistleblower Protection Act (Act No.16/2019) defines whistleblowing as making a disclosure regarding a public or private party’s wrongdoing relating to corrupt, illegal, fraudulent or hazardous activities which concern or threaten the public interest.

In celebrating World Whistleblowers Day, we not only honor those who have already come forward, but we also aim to protect future whistleblowers. Strengthening protections and creating a supporting environment helps to ensure whistleblowers can come forward and report misconduct without fear of retaliation and repercussions.

The Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) 2023 released by Transparency International reveals that Maldives, has fallen one point in the CPI score, from 40 to 39, and remains amongst the two-thirds of countries to score below 50. The protection and enforcement of the rights of whistleblowers is a crucial step towards remedying the negative perceptions that the public has towards institutions in addition to improving accountability.

Although Maldives has taken progressive steps towards safeguarding the rights of whistleblowers through the introduction of relevant laws, the fear of retaliation, lack of accountability, lack of trust and uncertainty about accountability are a few reasons that pose challenges in the overall implementation of laws and safeguarding whistleblowers.

Protecting Whistleblowers in the Maldives and the Inception of Law

As we commemorate Whistleblowers Day, it is imperative to reflect on the profound impact that whistleblowers have had on our society. Their actions have led to a significant legal reform, improved governance and enhanced public trust.

One such individual is Gasim Abdul Kareem, who, while working as the manager of the Bank of Maldives Nilandhoo Branch, was arrested by Maldives Police Service for leaking detailed bank statements of a private company, SOF Pvt. Ltd. The leaked documents revealed how SOF bank accounts were used to siphon off millions of dollars embezzled from Maldives Marketing and Public Relations Company (MMPRC) as a part of the grand corruption scandal that involved the laundering and embezzlement of over USD 259 million. Gasim went on to spend 133 days in prison and 138 days under house arrest. Various concerns were raised by local and international organizations to dismiss the case against him, exonerate him and introduce a system for effective whistleblower protection in the Maldives.

Following the case of Gasim Abdul Kareem, Transparency Maldives drafted a comprehensive bill for the protection of whistleblowers based on Transparency International’s International Principles for Whistleblower Legislation. The Whistleblower Protection Act (Act No.: 16/2019) was ratified on 17 October 2019. This landmark legislation introduced comprehensive protections for whistleblowers who report corruption, misconduct, and other illegal activities within organizations.

The Law on Protection of Whistleblowers

The Whistleblower Protection Act aims to provide protection and safety for whistleblowers, establish mechanisms and procedures to report wrongdoings and promote a culture of accountability, transparency and integrity.

What can you blow the whistle on?

Disclosures under the Act can be made for the following actions:

- Any violations of the law.

- Instances of abuse of human rights.

- Abuse of international humanitarian law

- Corruption

- A danger to public health and safety.

- A danger to the environment.

- Abuse of public office.

- Miscarriage of justice.

- Waste or mismanagement of resources.

- Criminal or administrative offence

- Retaliation for whistleblowing.

- Any action taken to conceal the abovementioned acts.

Who is protected under the Act?

The protections under the act are provided to all categories of employees including permanent staff, temporary staff, part-time staff, volunteers, interns and further extends to any party who has been associated/worked for the authority.

Disclosures under the act must be made within two years of the date of the material incident or within two years from the last date of employment.

How can disclosures be made?

The Act also mandates the establishment of an internal mechanism for whistleblowing at a workplace through setting up of a committee.

Disclosures under the Act may be made through the following channels:

STEP 1: To the internal mechanism/committee for whistleblowing in the workplace

STEP 2: To the head of the organization or the person nominated for the purposes of whistleblowing

STEP 3: To the whistleblower protection unit of Human Rights Commission of Maldives

If an employee believes that making the disclosure to the internal committee or to the head of the organization would lead to an unfair investigation or cause danger to the whistleblower or a third party, the disclosure can be made directly to the Whistleblower Protection Unit of HRCM.

What protections are provided under the Act?

- Protection for a disclosure made with reasonable belief.

- Protection from retribution or retaliation including dismissal, reduction of salary, reduction of working hours etc.

- Anonymity and preservation of confidentiality.

- Right to refuse participation in wrongdoing.

- Waiver of liability.

- Burden of proof lies on the employer where any measure is taken against an employee for whistleblowing.

- The whistleblower's rights are to be preserved where any rule or agreement obstructing the protections afforded to whistleblowers are invalid.

- Whistleblowers and family members are entitled to receive personal protection for safety.

- Whistleblowers are entitled to receive compensation for damage suffered due to retaliatory action.

The Employees Guide to Safe Whistleblowing developed by Transparency Maldives contains further details of the Act:

Current Figures and the Path Forward

The Annual Report for the year 2023 published by the Whistleblower Protection Unit shows that a total of 21 cases were submitted to the authority where 19 of the cases were sent to other authorities for investigation and 2 were investigated by the unit.

The 21 cases submitted to the unit pertained to the abuse of human rights, corruption, misuse of public authority, a criminal or administrative offence and retaliation for whistleblowing.

Further, 185 authorities informed the unit after setting up the internal whistleblowing mechanism. On seeking statistics on the number of cases submitted to the internal whistleblowing mechanisms of state authorities, it was noted that 30 cases were submitted to state authorities bringing the total number of cases of whistleblowing to 51.

Enhancing the protection provided to whistleblowers is crucial in ensuring that a culture of safe reporting without fear of repercussions is provided to whistleblowers. In order to ensure whistleblowers are protected, and action is taken to prevent corruption and malpractice, relevant institutions must work towards:

- Increasing the technical capacity of bodies that investigate cases of whistleblowing.

- Increased training and awareness of whistleblower protection across public and private institutions.

- Increased training and awareness of whistleblower protection towards the general public.

- Improved inter-agency coordination when conducting investigations related to whistleblowing.

- Providing swift legal remedies and access to justice for those who have faced retaliation from whistleblowing.

- Monitoring and evaluation of the internal mechanism set up in public and private institutions to determine effectiveness of the current regime.

- Launch reward programs for whistleblowers to incentivize individuals to come forward and report wrongdoings.

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