Blowing the whistle in Central America: not as easy as it sounds

In Latin America, whistleblowing has become a crucial issue in the fight against corruption. The term refers to those who report to the authorities or other responsible parties when they witness wrongdoing. Whistleblowing is often a valuable means of shedding light on instances of corruption and malpractice that may otherwise slip beneath the radar.

Video grab from Guatemala videoBut the decision to ”blow the whistle” is highly dependent on national and political contexts. Whilst there are some international commonalities, the challenges and consequences that come with blowing the whistle vary greatly from region to region, with some societies offering far more support to whistleblowers than others. Often, the societies where corruption is perceived to be most prevalent are those that are least accommodating to whistleblowers, creating a vicious cycle of unchallenged corruption.

Central America offers one example of a region in which whistleblower protection needs far more attention. The issue is particularly sensitive here for a number of reasons, both political and cultural. Firstly, the prevalence of organised crime and violence means the security risks that come with whistleblowing are particularly high.

A strong example can be seen in a case of nepotism reported to the Guatemalan chapter of Transparency International, Accion Ciudadana. Mynor* wanted to report the case of his local mayor who – in a region with high unemployment rates – employed a large number of family members including his wife and children to work in his office, breaching Guatemala’s 2002 anti-nepotism law. But when our chapter tried to help Mynor report the case to the authorities, he gained serious unwanted attention. En route to the capital, he was pulled off a bus by armed men, bundled into a car and taken into the woods where he was robbed and told to abandon the case. On another occasion, he was confronted by masked men with guns who threatened to kill him if he caused ‘any more trouble’. Despite this, Mynor stood by the case and after investigation the Comptroller General’s Office actually called for the removal of five of the mayor’s closest relatives from office.

While there was a positive outcome, Mynor’s story doesn’t offer much incentive to others to report on corruption, for fear of being met with similar kinds of intimidation. You can watch an interview with Mynor about the ordeal, and the support he received, here:

Latin America is often characterised as having a ‘collectivist culture’ epitomised by the crucial role that family, close friends and local community play in the lives of individuals. As a result, the role of legal institutions and government officials is seen very differently from those in more individualistic societies. Public entities are often viewed as separate from ‘normal life’ and met with far more skepticism than in, for example, OECD countries where there’s an implicit understanding that institutions like the police or the judiciary are there to service you, the individual. Add to the mix the high rates of corruption pervading many official bodies – as highlighted by Mynor’s case and reflected in the 2011 Corruption Perception Index, where the majority of countries in the region scored poorly – and we can see that Central America provides a difficult environment in which to blow the whistle.

So, how to overcome the obstacles to reporting corruption in the region? At the recent civil society-led Central American and Dominican Republic Forum for Transparency this question was placed high on the agenda. Many participants were keen to flag that high-level commitments made by governments were simply not being followed through. Civil society reviews of the implementation of the Inter-American Convention against Corruption, which contains significant provisions related to whistleblower protection, indicate that a majority of state parties are not taking the obligation seriously at all. And even one of the most internationally recognised anti-corruption mechanisms, the UN Convention against Corruption, seems to be having limited impact.

This is precisely why open spaces for regional dialogue and exchange across sectors are so important. They are an invaluable way to keep such complex issues on the agenda, monitor progress and develop innovative solutions that may create real change. Below are a series of recommendations from the Forum’s whistleblowing session. It was agreed that we must:

  1. Promote protection laws that ensure identity protection during all stages of the process, looking out for not only the physical safety but also the economic security of the complainant and their families
  2. Ensure legislation applies to the public and private sectors
  3. Ensure protection applies to witnesses, whistleblowers and victims
  4. Link protection laws to existing human rights instruments
  5. Not place the burden of proof on whistleblowers

And it was stressed that we look beyond the formal, legal frameworks to other tools and mediums that address the issue in a more holistic way, such as:

  1. Communication strategies that promote a culture of whistleblowing and increase political will for whistleblower protection
  2. Build up independent institutions with adequate resources – human, technological and financial – to ensure compliance with rules and regulations
  3. Develop impartial monitoring and evaluation processes of protection laws and mandates across all sectors

With such recommendations provided by a strong and vibrant anti-corruption community led by civil society, it is now up to governments to go beyond their limp promises and lend full support to implementing the necessary infrastructure that will allow their citizens to blow the whistle loud and hard if the need arises – without fear of what may happen next. Hopefully, this will start to nurture a culture where the authorities are seen as part of the collective and not external to it.

* All names have been changed to protect the security of the individuals.

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Eleanor Kennedy

About Eleanor Kennedy

Eleanor Kennedy is Assistant Programme Coordinator in the Americas Department at Transparency International.

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3 Responses to Blowing the whistle in Central America: not as easy as it sounds

  1. Renee 17 January 2012 at 4:00 am #

    I think whistle-blowing is a positive thing if it helps to stop corruption or wrong-doing in an organisation, agency or group. However, given the risk associated with whistle-blowing – particularly in Central America, it is best for the person who plans to “blow the whistle” to weigh up the consequences of doing so with the consequences of keeping quiet. This can be done by applying utilitarian ethics to the situation. Utilitarianism is a consequentialist ethical theory that is based on the idea that we should decide the moral worth of an action by reference to its likely consequences, compared with the likely consequences of other actions. The theory also looks at which option is likely to cause the greatest amount of happiness versus the least amount of happiness.

    In the case mentioned, Mynor was aware of the local mayor breaching Guatemala’s 2002 anti-nepotism law by employing a number of family members to work in his office, in a region with high unemployment rates. With utilitarian ethical theory, the options available to Mynor in this case would be to keep quiet or to speak out against the mayor and report the case.
    The likely consequences of Mynor keeping quiet could include the mayor continuing to employ family members in his office and therefore continuing to breach Guatemala’s 2002 anti-nepotism law. If the mayor knows he can get away with doing so, the situation might escalate, with more of the mayor’s family and friends being employed instead of the people who are qualified for, and really deserve the positions. Other consequences could include an unequal distribution of wealth in the region, and those family members who are in a significant role, not being qualified or experienced and therefore unable to do the job well. The good consequences should Mynor keep quiet, would be that his safety would not be put at risk.

    However, if Mynor speaks out against the mayor, it is likely the mayor and his family would be investigated. This puts Mynor at risk of his name being made known to the mayor and his associates. Despite the mayor breaking the law, being in the position of power that he is in, he could make Mynor’s life extremely difficult, should his name be revealed. The good consequences should Mynor report the case, would be the possibility of the mayor being held accountable for breaching the law and his family members being removed from office, which would allow other, better qualified people to take on the positions.

    Mynor chose to report the case to Transparency International, which in turn reported it to the authorities. This resulted in Mynor being put at great risk and his life being threatened. In this case, Mynor made the right choice. The consequences of him keeping quiet could cause more people to suffer as unemployment would continue to rise and people who are deserving of particular jobs may not be able to get them. By whistle-blowing, Mynor was putting only himself at risk; thus creating the greatest happiness by reporting the case. Despite his life being threatened, the result of Mynor reporting the case was that five of the mayor’s family members were removed from office.

    This case had a positive outcome but given the risk Mynor was putting himself in, it is likely not many others in his position would do the same. This is why I agree that more needs to be done to ensure the protection of whistle-blowers and their families. They are “blowing the whistle” for the greater good of the community and the country that they live in and they should encouraged. People would be more open to whistle-blowing if they had a guarantee that they would be protected in doing so.

    I attempted to research the laws that exist with regard to protecting whistle-blowers in America. While there are such laws and policies in place, many of these appear to only protect internal whistle-blowing (reporting wrong-doing within an organisation in which the whistle-blower works). However, there is the Whistle-blower Protection Act (1989) that protects federal whistleblowers who work for the government and report agency misconduct. The Act states that a federal agency violates the Whistle-blower Protection Act if agency authorities take (or threaten to take) retaliatory personnel action against any employee or applicant because of disclosure of information by that employee or applicant. Whistle-blowers may file complaints that they believe reasonably evidences a violation of a law, rule or regulation; gross mismanagement; gross waste of funds; an abuse of authority; or a substantial and specific danger to public health or safety. My interpretation of this is that the law protects all forms of whistle-blowing, not just internal. Although, it is not entirely clear if a person in Mynor’s position would have been protected by this law, so changes do need to be made.

    I agree with the recommendations in your blog post from the Forum’s whistle-blowing session about protection of the whistle-blower and legislation applying to both public and private sectors. In particular I agree with your statement of looking beyond the legal frameworks to address the issue. Society has a tendency to frown upon whistle-blowing, often labelling people who “blow the whistle” as “narks” and sticking their noses in where they don’t belong. The establishment of organisations such as Transparency International is a hugely positive step towards a change of culture on the issue of whistle-blowing but more emphasis does need to be placed on the protection of those “blowing the whistle”.

    The Whistle-blower Protection Act 1989 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whistleblower_Protection_Act

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