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Africa needs better protection for whistleblowers

March 9, 2017

In Africa only seven of 54 countries have a whistleblower protection law on the books. DW talked to Mark Worth of the Platform for the Protection of Whistleblowers in Africa about the dangers whistleblowers face.

A set of files, one marked Top Secret
Image: imago/INSADCO

DW: Mark, you are a whistleblower expert and member of the board. What's the mission of the Platform for the Protection of Whistleblowers in Africa?

Mark Worth: The platform has many core functions. One of them is to provide personal legal advice and support and, when needed, legal representation for whistleblowers and other sensitive witnesses who are in danger of either civil liability or criminal prosecution or even physical threats and dangers. So we have developed a network of lawyers across Africa to provide this legal support and advice. Another core function is to receive whistleblower disclosures and information from other sensitive witnesses and crime victims through an encrypted online portal which uses the global leak software and also through secure telephone hotlines which for now are in English and French. Another core function is to develop articles based on these disclosures for publication in national, regional and international media to get the information out to the public. It is also about working towards the passage of strong whistleblower protection laws, to make sure that there is legal protection in place for whistleblowers across the continent, to strengthen existing laws and to make sure these laws are being efficiently and effectively applied. Another purpose is to generally raise awareness in Africa about the role of whistleblowers  - to recognize that whistleblowers, whether they are a citizen or an employee or even a government official - play a key role in exposing and combating corruption, holding guilty parties, crooks and swindlers to account if they do break the law, commit crimes or destroy the environment or are responsible for unsafe food or dirty water, to make sure these crimes and dangers do not go unpunished. This is the first regional organization in the world that provides all the core functions to protect whistleblowers, to give them an opportunity to report safely, to write about their disclosures and to strengthen legal rights for them across the continent.

How important are whistleblowers, especially for Africa?

We don't like to distinguish, they are important everywhere in the world. Every country in the world has had some whistleblower cases of some kind. However, in Africa our research found that only seven of 54 countries have a whistleblower protection law on the books. So certainly, in terms of legal protection, Africa needs to catch up. In the EU by comparison, 11 of the 28 countries have the protection law, so a little bit better record though still not great. There have been countless cases of whistleblowers and other sensitive witnesses in Africa being fired, harassed, ostracized, threatened, murdered, blacklisted or put in dangerous situations, including their family. There is massive corruption that entangles business interests with political interests. Whistleblowers have played an increasingly important role in exposing these individuals and their deeds. So that's why the platform will both report on the disclosures in the media, get the word out, publish their reports and also try to protect them from such retaliations. The role of whistleblowers in Africa is the same as in every part of the world: to give citizens, regular people in regular jobs who come across a piece of paper that doesn't look right, the chance to get that piece of paper out into the public domain and try to fix the problem.

You have launched this organization at a time when some governments in Africa are attacking human rights defenders and whistleblowers. How will you ensure the safety of those who expose abuses?

There is no 100 percent guarantee that anybody can protect anyone from anything. But we have seen over the decades that it is important to have skilled lawyers, trusted journalists who protect whistleblowers' identities, encrypted software for making reports and NGOs to advocate on behalf of the whistleblower if their name becomes public. If you have all these pieces in place, if you surround the whistleblowers with legal, media and activist support, maybe a member of parliament coming to their defense, there is a greater chance that the person will not suffer a complete career disaster or maybe their lives will be saved. I do not personally encourage anyone to blow the whistle, that's not responsible. If somebody wants to do it, we explain the risks, the potential rewards, their legal rights, the dangers they might be exposed to. We don't encourage anyone to do this because of the dangers, not just in Africa but in all parts of the world where we work. So if they want to do it, we help them do it safely, protect their identity, give them legal representation if they need it, and if they need to leave the country to a different country, we try to give them options to do that but it is very important to note that there is no guarantee that a whistleblower will be safe if they go ahead and make a report on corruption. Especially if it involves a well-connected political person or business interest.

How independent is your organization?

Well, we don't take any money from governments at this point. Our services are free for the public. We have private donors at this point so we are not affiliated with any other corporations or government agencies. The founder of the organization, William Bourdon, is an extremely well known human rights lawyer in France. Another board member, Baltazar Garzon, is an extremely well known and respected lawyer and prosecutor from Spain who, for example, helped prosecute the dictator Pinochet [military ruler of Chile between 1973 and 1990] for crimes against his own citizens. Both have gone after political criminals. So you know that this is a seriously independent organization whose only interest is to help and support whistleblowers and go after the bad guys.

A new initiative was launched in Senegal on Tuesday. Could you tell me something about that?

We had a press conference in Dakar to announce the formation of the platform which is registered in Dakar, Senegal and the website is up, the hotline is open, the encrypted disclosure channel is ready to receive reports from whistleblowers so everything is operational as of March 7th.

Mark Worth is a whistleblower expert and member of the board of the Platform for the Protection of Whistleblowers in Africa. He works for the NGO Blueprint for free speech based in Australia.

Interview: Silja Fröhlich

DW - Silja Fröhlich
Silja Fröhlich is a German journalist and radio host.