Senator Vieira supports Whistleblower Protection Bill

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Independent Senator Anthony Vieira –

INDEPENDENT Senator Anthony Vieira, SC, pledged his support to the Whistleblower Protection Bill, speaking in a marathon sitting of the Senate that lasted from Tuesday afternoon just after midnight.

The bill was recently passed by a simple majority in the House of Representatives, where Cumuto/Manzanilla MP Dr Rai Ragbir broke ranks with the Opposition and supported the legislation.

Vieira said more than 60 countries have enacted whistleblower legislation – of varying scope, enforcement and protection – but all designed to protect people reporting rampant misconduct.

Asking why 60 countries had such laws, he said such legislation encourages ethical behaviour by promoting transparency and integrity in the public and private sectors, plus reporting wrongdoing without fear of retaliation or victimisation.

“Speaking out is never easy,” Vieira asserted, saying it goes against the grain of organisational culture and exposes the whistleblower to job loss, harassment and legal consequences. “They do so at great personal risk.”

However, he said the bill prohibited detrimental action against whistleblowers exposing wrongs such as bribery, sexual abuse, fraudulent payments for work never done, or environmental damage.

Vieira recalled the example of US whistleblower Karen Silkwood (1946-1974) whose bravery may well have averted serious harm from a nuclear reaction (whose story is told in the 1983 movie, Silkwood.) He said a whistleblower could have averted the recent Tobago oil-spill (which polluted the sea and cost millions to clean up).

Vieira said whistleblowers contribute to safer working conditions by reporting unsafe practices.

“Whistleblower laws strengthen democracy and governance.

“It will help hold power to account, for the common good.”

Such laws curb injustice, corruption and human right abuses, he said. They help to maintain ethical standards, protect individuals and ensure the proper functioning of officials.

Vieira, however, expressed concern about the bill not giving protection to disclosures made anonymously.

He said some countries have set up Ombudsman-like officers to ensure action on whistleblowing disclosures.

While TT has not done so, he said the bill allowed an employee to make his report external to the proposed whistleblower desk to be set up in his organisation. He said reports could be made to constitutionally protected officeholders including the Auditor General, Director of Public Prosecutions and Ombudsman, plus respected entities like the Central Bank, Children’s Authority and Office of Procurement Regulation.

Vieira urged several measures to promote such legislation. Those included giving organisations whistleblowing templates so as to not have to proverbially reinvent the wheel, running awareness campaigns to educate employees on their rights, cultivating confidence by dealing with complaints expeditiously, building an organisational culture that values transparency and ethics, create a safe environment for reporting, and creating a cultural shift away from regarding whistleblowers as traitors or snitches.

Regarding concerns the bill was an abuse of privacy, he said no TT law explicitly guarded privacy, which he said was protected only by an amalgam of laws such as the Data Protection Act. The Constitution protected individuals’ privacy only from the State, Vieira added.

He said the Privy Council ruling in the Dominic Suraj case had said individual rights were not absolute, but rather that legislators must strike a balance between individual rights and the general interest. He considered that the prevention of corruption was a legitimate aim of the bill, when balanced against individual rights.

Vieira rejected Opposition Senator Wade Mark’s concerns that the bill could facilitate false accusations being levelled against political opponents. Vieira said, “Immunity only covers protected disclosures. So, if a disclosure is false, it is not protected, and if it is not protected proceedings can be brought against the person who made the disclosure.

“I don’t see an intolerable and unjustifiable invasion of privacy. The rules are proportionate.

“I am satisfied a special majority is not required.”

He ended by quoting poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox, “To sin by silence when we should protest, Makes cowards of men.”