Whistleblowing is about “speaking truth to power” when internal corporate mechanisms for preventing fraud and corruption fail. Whistleblowers are often seen as heroes who put their lives on hold and careers at risk to disclose misconduct. But, in some cases, they experience reprisals and face dire consequences for their choices. In recent history, three instances of financial misconduct and public safety concerns highlight the differences in the way Austria, France, and Italy deal with disclosures of wrongdoing and freedom of the press. In many ways landmark cases, all involved external reporting channels that required the press to publish a story after internal mechanisms failed.
The World Health Organisation
In 2021, researcher Francesco Zambon was threatened with dismissal when he revealed Italy’s pandemic plan had not been updated since 2006. Italian citizens were in the midst of battling the first COVID-19 wave and many hospitals were in chaos. The World Health Organisation (WHO) published, and then quickly withdrew the report. It was later revealed that then Assistant Director General Ranieri Guerra had threatened Zambon and silenced the research findings. Guerra had served as Director of Prevention and had not updated the plan during his tenure.
The case revealed a clear conflict of interest, which was disclosed to the WHO Ethics Office. However, the organisation did not adequately follow up on the complaint and made the whistleblower’s working conditions intolerable. He was demoted and eventually resigned in March 2021. The case reflects the EU’s recent Global Corruption Barometer, which found that in Italy, 58% of employees fear retaliation if they report wrongdoing. It also reveals major reform is needed within the WHO organisation to prevent corruption and ensure future accountability. Zambon later said he was pressured to hide the fact that Italy had not updated its pandemic plan prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. The outdated plan likely contributed to at least 10,000 deaths during the first wave and led to several errors by authorities in the Lombardy region, which was severely affected by COVID-19.
Sapin II Law
France was one of the first EU nations to introduce a robust whistleblower law against corruption. The 2015 rules were introduced by Minister Michel Sapin and included protection for whistleblowers. In 2016, the Sapin II law went even further and aligned France’s approach to compliance with that of the UK and the US. It required companies to implement internal mechanisms that would increase transparency, strengthen the legal system by broadening the scope of existing provisions, and create the AFA.
In 2017, the satirical newspaper Le canard enchaîné published a story about then-Republican presidential candidate and former prime minister to Nicolas Sarkozy, Francois Fillon. In what is now known as Penelopegate, the newspaper alleged that Fillon’s wife Penelope had been hired as a parliamentary assistant for her husband and as a literary consultant for Revue des deux mondes without ever having to do any work. The unintended whistleblower, in this case, had been Penelope herself. She was interviewed in 2007 and stated she had done campaign work for her husband but was never his assistant ‘or anything like that’ and had never dealt with his communication. The 2017 story triggered an investigation into the embezzlement and misuse of public funds. OCLCIFF authorities later found evidence of forged documents, falsification of records, influence-peddling, and aggravated fraud. Fillon and his wife were both convicted on June 20th, 2020. Fillon had intended to launch his presidential campaign in 2017.
Before the Sapin II law, there was little criminal liability for failing to adequately supervise employees who commit offences. Between 2017 and 2021, the French Anticorruption Agency (AFA) conducted broad sweeping audits, 84 of which were of private companies. Only two referrals for misconduct were made, showing that the new law has had the intended effect.
Julian Hessenthaler, a security consultant who leaked what is now known as the Ibizagate video in 2019, was aggressively prosecuted after blowing the whistle on Austria’s former vice-chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache for misconduct. The whistleblower recorded Strache in 2017 appearing to promise contracts in exchange for campaign support. Ibizagate triggered a political scandal that revealed ties between the Putin regime and European right-wing parties. The disclosure had far-reaching negative consequences on Austria’s government and led to the resignation of the vice-chancellor. The government was criticized for its lack of transparency and corruption. The case brought an end to the coalition between the Freedom Party and Austria’s People party and triggered an election and nationwide protests. The chancellor, Sebastian Kurz faced a vote of no confidence in parliament.
Hessenthaler faced extensive repercussions after he disclosed the video to the press. He faced charges of falsifying documents and drug use, surveillance, home searches, and breaches of his private bank accounts. The Austrian government was attempting to deter and discourage other whistleblowers and limit freedom of the press in the EU nation. Ibizagate eventually led to internal inquiries that revealed Strache and others had made false statements to a parliamentary committee. He and others were convicted on corruption charges. The Hessenthaler case revealed freedom of opinion and press are frequently undermined in Austria. President Alexander Van der Bellen later said of the case, “this is not who we are” and vowed to work towards a more transparent government and better protection for individuals who expose wrongdoing.
These three whistleblowing situations are not necessarily the first you think of when you consider recent misconduct in EU history. But their outcomes emphasize how speaking up about misconduct can lead to historical changes in the legal system. Public disclosures to the press have had a huge impact on the way EU Member Nations conduct their investigations into alleged corruption and fraud. Whistleblowing channels, when unavailable internally, can become high-profile public disclosures that transform the way citizens see their leaders. There have been significant developments in the way law is practiced in the EU when it comes to whistleblowing over the last five years. The EU Directive has amplified these changes by setting new standards for reporting wrongdoing at the organisational level.
Whistleblowing strengthens democratic values by providing transparency and knowledge about private and public entities. Public awareness of the value of whistleblowing and the willingness to prosecute corruption and fraud can increase democracy within EU nations. Without a doubt, whistleblowing deters and prevents wrongdoing. But the relationship between journalist and whistleblower is sometimes key to strengthening laws and preventing reprisals.