Earlier this year, the unfair treatment of Professor Pal Ahluwalia, University of South Pacific’s Vice Chancellor, by the government of Fiji shocked Pacific societies. Authorities raided Vice Chancellor’s house, and deported him together with his wife to Australia for unspecified immigration violations. This coincidentally occurred after he blew a whistle on alleged financial irregularities under the university’s previous administrations.
23 June was World Whistleblowers Day. It provides an opportunity to celebrate the people who have come forward to speak out against corruption and wrongdoing. And while there is an increased global recognition of whistleblowers’ vital role in our societies, in far too many places, urgent action to protect them is still needed.
Across the Pacific region, whistleblowers still desperately lack basic legal protections. Whistleblower protection reform is needed at key Pacific intergovernmental organisations, like the University of South Pacific, where Professor Pal Ahluwalia works.
Whistleblowing is one of the most effective ways to shine the light on corruption. Courageous individuals’ disclosures have exposed corruption and other wrongdoing, helping save public funds and avoid disasters for health and the environment.
Public and private organisations also directly benefit from whistleblowing mechanisms, as they are effective corruption risk management and prevention tools, allowing them to be alerted to and address corruption issues, thus preventing or mitigating damages for the organisation and, often, the public interest.
However, too often whistleblowers face retaliation in the form of harassment, dismissal from jobs, blacklisting, threats and even physical violence, and their disclosures are routinely ignored.
Individual rights to freedom of expression includes the right to point out acts of wrongdoing – both in government and in private companies. Whistleblowers must be acknowledged and protected, not punished and ostracised.
Reform efforts and pending gaps
Transparency International has developed international principles for whistleblowing legislation and a Best Practice Guide for Whistleblowing Legislation, which many countries and international organisations have used as a guide to develop their own legislation and standards.
Regionally, the Pacific Islands Law Officers’ Network (PILON) has also published guiding principles for protecting whistleblowers and encouraging protected disclosure.
In the Pacific region, Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea (PNG) are the only two countries which have passed specific whistleblower protection laws. Transparency International’s chapters in these countries have been key players advocating for whistleblower protection. The Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru and Palau have all been considering enacting such legislation too.
Despite these positive steps, more must be done. PNG’s 2020 Whistleblower Protection Act was developed with minimal consultations and has several limitations. According to the 2021 PNG National Integrity System Assessment, this legislation is wholly inadequate. It places the burden on whistleblowers with no protection of their identities and with the ultimate arbiter being the head of the agency. There is no private sector protection, and the public sector provisions allow civil servants to blow the whistle only on their own agency.
PNG’s 2020 organic law on the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) has strong whistleblowing provisions that consider the private sector as well. However, these only pertain to the work of the commission once established.
In Solomon Islands, the 2018 Whistleblower Protection Act includes heavy penalties for victimising and exposing whistleblowers. However, such offences must be reported to key institutions, such as the Solomon Islands ICAC, which is not fully functional yet and currently experiences capacity and resource limitations. Implementation of relevant legislation will require strengthening of key institutions and mechanisms.
In Vanuatu, the 2016 Right to Information act has provisions for whistleblower protection but the implementation of the Act needs to be supported and awareness of it raised amongst the general public.
What needs to be done
Pacific governments and other key stakeholders should take decisive steps towards the creation of a supportive environment where whistleblowers are empowered to speak up and are adequately protected across the region.
Governments need to prioritise whistleblower protection legislation across all Pacific countries to protect whistleblowers nationally and at the regional level. Since several Pacific countries are interested in enacting whistleblower protection legislation, this is an opportune entry point for civil society to conduct law reform advocacy, drawing on global good practice.
Acknowledging the strong commitment by the leadership in PNG to amend further the national Whistleblower protection Act, this process needs to take place consultatively together with civil society and other key stakeholders to ensure the legislation meets international standards.
Capacity support and funding needs to be prioritised to strengthen key institutions and mechanisms that will enable effective implementation of the whistleblower protection legislation in Solomon Islands, as well as other legislation containing relevant provisions in Vanuatu and other Pacific countries.
Development partners and intergovernmental institutions such as PILON need to support governments and the private sector adapt from international and regional guidelines and best practices to strengthen whistleblower protection across the region.
Companies, too, have a key role to play in encouraging anonymous reporting and whistleblower protection. Business networks can partner with government actors and civil society to conduct whistleblower protection capacity support to the private sector.
Finally, institutions implementing whistleblower protection policies, as well as agencies that provide legal advice, need to engage workers and clients to give them access to safe channels of reporting corruption and receiving information on their rights and obligations.
When properly implemented, whistleblowing mechanisms – which should include safe reporting channels and whistleblower protection policies, but also other elements such as awareness raising and training – empower workers to report wrongdoing they encounter. They allow organisations to become aware of internal corruption issues and to act rapidly to address them, making them effective corruption prevention and risk management tools.