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German whistleblowers: Loved, hated, poorly protected

Matthias von Hein / ccMay 2, 2016

Serious abuses often come to light only as a result of information from insiders. Although their leads are so important, whistleblowers are often persecuted and punished, and are in need of greater protection.

Symbolbild - Aphasie
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

We all need whistleblowers. Consider the biggest scandals of recent years. The Panama Papers uncovered an elaborate system for concealing wealth, money that had often been obtained illegally. The whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed the extent of mass electronic surveillance by the US secret service, the NSA. And it's thanks to Chelsea Manning and WikiLeaks that we know about massive human rights abuses by the United States.

Valuable though their information may have been for the general public, informants have often had to pay a high price for their moral courage. Chelsea Manning is serving a 35-year sentence. Edward Snowden is stuck in exile in Russia.

Exposed a scandal, got a medal - and lost his job

The German language doesn't really have a word for "whistleblower." But in Germany, too, people show moral courage, expose corruption, publicize tax evasion or ecological crimes. However, whistleblowers are not rewarded for their services to the general public - in fact, quite the opposite, as we see from the following examples.

Miroslaw Strecker, a truck driver, gave information to the police about the transport of rotten meat. In doing so, he uncovered one of the biggest scandals of its kind. He was even presented, in 2007, with the Golden Badge for Moral Courage, by Horst Seehofer, then the Federal Minister for Agriculture. Strecker still lost his job.

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Germany's rotten meat scandal of 2006-07 was brought to light by a whistleblowerImage: picture-alliance/dpa

To date, the stockbroker Andrea Fuchs has initiated no less than 20 legal proceedings against her former employer, DZ Bank. The background to this is insider trading on a grand scale. Her bosses at DZ Bank were involved; Fuchs opposed the illegal transactions - and was fired.

But it doesn't happen only in the private sector. People in public administration also come under pressure if they don't want to go along with crooked deals. In 2002 the auditor Erwin Bixler went public with information about job centers systematically massaging statistics. The head of the Federal Labor Office at the time, Bernhard Jagoda, was forced to resign. Bixler himself was then subjected to serious harassment, eventually became ill, and had to take early retirement.

Secret files on the whistleblowers

The tax authorities in the state of Hesse took particularly ruthless action against four successful tax investigators. In 2001 the investigators refused meekly to accept that they were being hindered in their work, in order to prevent their investigations taking unwelcome directions. The former tax investigator Rudolf Schmenger is still fighting for rehabilitation.

Rudolf Schmenger Steuerberater
Rudolf SchmengerImage: privat

Just last December, Schmenger won a compensation suit in the court of second instance. In an interview with DW, Schmenger, who was awarded the international Whistleblower Prize in 2009, spoke of a scandal that continues to this day. "You have to think that people kept secret files, that they constructed disciplinary action, that they even subjected me to psychiatric assessment by a fake evaluator."

Schmenger draws a grim conclusion. "It has to be said that insiders who draw public attention to wrongdoing receive no protection whatsoever in our country. They are reviled, discredited, defamed, and they lose their jobs."

More interested in concealment than clarification

Annegret Falter is the chair of the German Whistleblower Netzwerk. In an interview with DW she gives a sober assessment. "The interest of the state in the official secrecy of its civil servants, the interest of companies in protecting their business secrets in capitalist competition – these interests will always be in opposition to the interest of civil society in public clarification and debate," she says.

This is why Falter does not expect that whistleblower protection will ever be perfect. However, she points out that in many countries whistleblowers do have legal protection. Yet in the United States Barack Obama's government has come down harder on whistleblowers than any of its predecessors, despite the fact that they are protected by law.

Germany doesn't even have such laws. Things would be different if the Green member of parliament Hans-Christian Ströbele had his way. "We submitted a draft law on this in 2014," Ströbele told DW.

Hans-Christian Ströbele Bundestag NSA Debatte 15.01.2014
The Greens' Hans-Christian Ströbele says whistleblowers should receive protectionImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Uli Deck

He explained that the draft had three components. "One: protection of the whistleblower in the private sector. Two: the field of public servants - civil servants, members of the government and so on. And three - which is one of the most important aspects - protection from prosecution. [The draft provides for] if people from secret services, from the army or from similar state institutions give information about undesirable developments that lead to significant dangers, constitutional violations, or even crimes."

So far, the draft law has not got majority support in the German parliament. There has not even been any progress with the inquiry - stipulated in the 2013 coalition agreement between the junior partner, center-left Social Democrats (SPD) and the ruling conservative Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) - into whether whistleblower protection in Germany corresponds with international guidelines.

Rather, the concerns of whistleblowers and their supporters have grown. In mid-April the EU parliament voted in favor of a standardized legal protection for business secrets. Matthias Spielkamp is on the board of Reporters Without Borders. He is concerned that this law might be open to abuse. Could it be used, instead, to punish whistleblowers? It certainly provides such an opportunity, he warns.