Whistleblower protection must never be compromised

THE smear campaign launched by the Fishrot accused against the Icelandic whistleblower, who played a key role in revealing the Fishrot scandal and its various dimensions, bears testament to how the need to strengthen protection on whistleblowers is crucial if more are going to feel comfortable to speak out.

Lawyers of the accused this week launched a scathing attack on Johannes Stefansson, the whistleblower and shred his character and persona as a self-confessed criminal with drug abuse problems.

While this can easily be dismissed as an attempt to delegitimise the key witness in the Fishrot case, it may carry grave social and psychological implications for the whistleblower while at the same deterring future whistleblowers from getting themselves involved in corruption matters.

Indeed, the corrupt, those with power and those who abuse others thrive when their wrongdoing stays hidden. In government and in the private sector these secrets are kept because people have so much to lose when speaking out. With this in mind, we submit that whistleblowers will need protection and support if others are to be encouraged, but perhaps it is worth discussing the importance of normalising their acts, so that we do not fall into the trap of making heroes – and perhaps martyrs – out of them.

Namibians have learned over the years that all public figures are fallible. We have learned that it is important to encourage a culture of debate, contestation and robust respect, but that it is as dangerous to hold up certain figures as saviours as it is to vilify others.

Namibians are far more circumspect about embracing personalities today than we were two decades ago. This is a healthy development. It means we can invest in creating the conditions for thousands of whistleblowers to emerge, rather than having to rely on a small band of courageous and highly vulnerable people to “save” our democracy.

This indeed can be done in various ways. Firstly, the introduction of an expanded list of people to whom a whistleblower contemplating making protected disclosures may go to, is imperative.

Equally so, people to whom such disclosures are made must be given the legal obligation to ensure confidentiality and adequate protection against harm for the whistleblower. Apart from this, we need to bring legislation in line with article 32 (2) of the United Nations Convention Against Corruption, which suggests that all signatory states provide for establishing procedures for the physical protection of such people, such as relocating them and permitting them, where appropriate, non-disclosure or limitations on the disclosure of information concerning the identity or whereabouts of such people.

Lastly, there may be a need for an authority or agency that can determine a format and procedures for disclosure. Such procedures should be widely published so that the mechanism for making disclosure is simplified for prospective informants and is readily attainable by them.

Whistleblowers are the reason we know Fishrot destroyed our fishing industry for self-enrichment of a few, how money for key public goods went into the pockets of those who wanted million dollar cars and how certain corporations have sought to profit through allegedly dishonest practices. 

We must do better to protect those brave enough to tell us the truth.