Whistleblowers: Key Actors Against Corruption

10 September 2019
Whistleblowers: Key Actors Against Corruption - © Falling whistles brief case, WoodSmithe/CreativeCommons


On 13 June 1971, one of the most influential newspapers of the United States published a series of secret documents about the Vietnam War. These contained governmental information stating that, although the United States was not going to win the War, it would continue sending troops and investing in that conflict. Later, it was found out that these documents had been provided by Daniel Ellsberg, a former member of the Pentagon. The publication of these documents called into question the management of President Nixon and, together with the subsequent Watergate scandal (1972), led to his resignation.

Much more recently, and this time in Europe, we had the case of Hervé Falciani in 2006. While he was working as a computer engineer for Swiss banking (HSBC), he illegally obtained a list with data on big tax evaders. This information was presented in France and, later, in Spain. Although he committed illegal acts, such as revealing bank secrets, thanks to his list Spain managed to detect large fraud in its public coffers. This contribution explains Spain’s decision to keep him in its territory, denying Switzerland the arrest warrant against him.

According to both cases, a whistleblower is an employee or former employee of a private company or of the public administration who reports to the authorities any irregularities committed within his/her organisation. He/she can raise the complaint to internal control organisms or the mass media. These actors are now considered by many experts to be “the guardian of the application of laws”.

It is absolutely necessary to protect whistleblowers due to the great work they do collaborating with justice. Besides, they are exposed to a large number of reprisals by their companies and even by the states themselves. These paybacks constitute a disincentive for people to provide all relevant information to resolve corruption cases. So, protective measures, as well as possible economic incentives, are an adequate response. In the United States, for example, their effectiveness has been already proven.

Protecting Whistleblowers in Europe

In 2014, the European Parliament presented a package of measures to act against corruption. One of the proposals was to regulate the protection of and support for whistleblowers, materialising it in a directive (a type of European law that contains a series of objectives and allows the State members to choose how to achieve them) in 2018. The freedom of expression and information, the right to fair working conditions and the right to the protection of personal data are the fundamental rights on which the European Union has worked to defend legality of whistleblowers. Specifically, it tries to protect them from future labour, economic or psychological reprisals in their workplace, like dismissal, degradation or denial of promotions, negative assessments, coercion, discrimination, etc. Among the measures to achieve this, are the state’s obligation to ensure their confidentiality and punishment for those natural or legal people who retaliate against the whistleblower.

Most European States already have legislation to this effect. For example, Italy was one of the most recent countries to formalise the protection of whistleblowers with Law 179 on 30 November 2017. But, after the Directive, they must adjust their laws to what it dictates. Using our own example, Italy does not have to make any important changes. Elsewhere, those States that have no regulation as of yet are forced to create it before 2021. For example, in Spain, only two bills have been submitted, but they have not been approved so far due to changes in the government. However, this issue has been resolved by the autonomous communities (regional level of government) that have taken up the initiative on their own. Nevertheless, state regulations are necessary to respond to the requirements of the European Union.

In conclusion, it is important to protect whistleblowers because these actors are becoming essential in detecting corruption cases.


Cristina Fernández González is a criminologist and researcher in training at the Research Center for Global Governance (University of Salamanca). Currently, she is investigating about corruption reporters (whistleblowers) and effective protection measures. Her main field of research is anti-corruption measures and integrity policies. In her free time, she loves being with her friends and going to the gym.


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