Protection of whistleblowers vital during COVID-19

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15 April 2020

Across the world, demands are growing for strong public accountability over responses by governments to the COVID-19 crisis – with the importance of whistleblowers, in particular, being vividly demonstrated as never before.

Now the importance of whistleblower protection has been reinforced by a global statement following some dramatic mistakes by officials and authorities in their knee jerk reactions to the pandemic.

The open letter Make Whistleblowing Safe During COVID-19 and Beyond  is supported by more than 50 organisations and experts worldwide, including many chapters of Transparency International.

It calls on ‘all public authorities and institutions to protect those who report or expose the harms, abuses and serious wrongdoing’ during the COVID-19 crisis – and afterwards.

Overseas

The worldwide statement was initiated by community groups The Good Lobby in Italy and Fibgar in Spain – two countries now badly hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.

But even earlier, the tragic death of Dr Li Wenliang in Wuhan, China on 7 February showed the importance of professionals who raise the alarm – as well as how vital it is for authorities to respond properly, and not simply by shooting the messenger.

Dr Li was officially reprimanded and silenced by the Wuhan public security bureau for sounding the alarm about COVID-19 to fellow doctors in late December.

As The Guardian reports, China’s National Supervision Commission has now exonerated Dr Li.  The local public security bureau has since apologised to his family, police officers have been disciplined and more heads are set to roll over the early response to the initial outbreak as the Commission continues to investigate.

However, similar poor initial responses are being played out worldwide.

In Poland, nurse and midwife Renata Piżanowska was sacked in March for posting pictures of her homemade surgical mask on social media, notwithstanding official calls for the public to donate personal protective equipment to hospitals.

After the head of the Polish health department affirmed that Renata had acted ‘too nervously’, who can blame her and other essential workers for feeling they have become trapped in a game whose rules they do not know.

On April 2, the Trump administration stood down the captain of the nuclear aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, for copying too many people on an internal memo appealing for faster evacuation of sick members of his 4000 crew off Guam.

The US Navy Secretary has since apologised for remarks he made about Captain Brett Crozier, and President Trump said he did not “want to destroy somebody for having a bad day”, but the Captain remains stood down.

Indeed, the very next day, President Trump also fired his inspector general of intelligence, Michael Atkins, for having supported CIA whistleblowers who reported on Mr Trump.

These kinds of recriminations should be a global wake-up call to governments and businesses – about how not to respond to the crisis.

At home

It is not just overseas where these incidents are occurring, with them arising on home soil too.

In early February, Qantas stood down an aircraft cleaner and union representative who raised concerns over cleaning standards in aircraft – a matter that is now being investigated by WorkSafe NSW.

This is after WorkSafe issued formal breach notices to Qantas a month later for failing to provide cleaners with a safe system of work, forcing them to handle wet tissues, used face masks and dirty nappies without proper protection.

Adelaide Airport has also since been brought to a near standstill by a COVID-19 outbreak among Qantas baggage handlers.

Just last weekend, a Sydney doctor working on the COVID-19 response was forced to sound the alarm that vulnerable patients in forced hotel isolations are not getting the care they need.

Given the huge potential human cost of these decisions, we can only watch carefully and hope for a speedy and positive response.

All these events are consistent with Australian and international research, showing employees and officials are the single most important and fastest way wrongdoing or mistakes are brought to light in organisations.

The current crisis not only highlights whistleblowers’ importance, but that protections for whistleblowers should be remembered, and where necessary, brought to bear.

While protections for private sector workers were strengthened under federal legislation in Australia, in 2019, we must remember that job remains unfinished, while public sector whistleblower protections are also lagging far behind.

It what already seems a distant memory, last year’s Australian Federal Police raids on media outlets for reporting whistleblower stories showed how out of date our federal public sector whistleblower protections have become.

Yet criminal prosecutions of defence and intelligence officials like David McBride and Witness K, and his lawyer Bernard Collary, have been continuing thanks to these clunky and unhelpful laws.

This is despite the whistleblowers and media being right – as shown when the Army finally initiated a criminal investigation into the shooting of an unarmed Afghani civilian, captured in helmet footage aired by Four Corners just last month.

Reforming Australia’s laws and protections is on the cards for the current federal government and parliament – but like many needed reforms, this process is now on hold, notwithstanding its obvious importance in the present crisis.

Indeed, whistleblowers are only likely to become even more vital to stopping wrongdoing, bungling and outright rorting of the billions of taxpayers’ dollars to be urgently rolled out as part of the economic response.

Amid the many calls for accountability to return to government decision-making at this time, we must remember it is the frontline people who speak up and speak out, who are our best assets for transparency, and most in need of our support and protection.

Author

AJ Brown

Professor A J Brown a boardmember of Transparency International globally and in Australia.  He is also program leader, public integrity and anti-corruption in the Centre for Governance and Public Policy, Griffith University and was a member of the Commonwealth Government’s ministerial expert panel on whistleblowing (2017-2019).

His team’s latest research report, Clean As A Whistle, also supported by Transparency International Australia,can be found here; and his 2019 Henry Parkes Oration, Safeguarding our Democracy: Whistleblower Protection after the Australian Federal Police Raids, including a seven point plan for restoring confidence to Commonwealth whistleblower protection can be found here.

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