SOCIETY: Cyprus unable to protect whistleblowers

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MPs along with the Cyprus Integrity Forum (CIF) have called for the adoption of legislation to encourage potential whistleblowers to come forward in the public interest in a war on corruption.

While the European Union is looking at ways to promote transparency within the bloc by creating secure channels for citizens who wish to report wrongdoings, Cyprus is being hammered in every international report regarding corruption.

MPs and the CIF feel that adopting a law protecting whistleblowers is essential if “Cyprus wants to combat corruption effectively and build a culture which will not tolerate corrupt practices whether in governance or their everyday life”.

Despite two bill proposals presented to the House by AKEL MP Eirini Charalambidou in 2016 and more recently by the Cyprus Greens, and a bill submitted by the Ministry of Justice in 2017, such a law has yet to be passed.

Arguably, these delays have severely damaged whistleblower’s willingness to come forward.

“The absence of a law protecting whistleblowers prevents citizens from coming forward to report wrongdoing in public service, in some cases it has led to the loss of lives,” says the CIF, formerly known as Transparency International Cyprus.

CIF chair Marios Skandalis told the Financial Mirror that for any state to have a future it must adopt measures securing transparency. “Without transparency, there will no investments and no growth.”

He said that one of the first things a state needs to do is to encourage its citizens to speak out enabling the state to act on the information to combat corruption.

Prerequisites are the establishment of a legal framework for the protection and recognition of whistleblowers in Cyprus, raising awareness regarding social perceptions, as well as the creation of a relevant Whistleblowing Agency which will provide, among other things, legal and other support to witnesses coming forward in the public interest.

"In many cases, people who have reported cases of corruption, mismanagement, intimidation, or wrongdoings which may in some cases endanger human lives, have seen their employers take retaliatory measures while some have been isolated by a section of society."

“Some not only lost their jobs, but they were faced with lawsuits, with consequences on their mental health and their family life."

Skandalis said a survey conducted by Transparency International into the events leading up to a munitions blast at the naval base in Mari, Limassol which killed 13 people, suggested that the explosion could have been avoided if a law protecting whistleblowers was in place.

He said, “people who had information concerning the dangerous munitions stacked out in the open in a naval base for over two years, were either afraid to come forward or believed that they would have blown the whistle in vain as no official would take them seriously”.

Skandalis seeks the creation of a national authority with the task of taking immediate action when receiving information and punishing those who do not comply with the law, be they the employers or persons who informed the authorities.

He said Transparency International Cyprus set up an agency for whistleblowers to come forward in 2014 with financial backing from the EU – but this grant only lasted a year.

“A Citizens Open Hotline” was set up with specialists and consultants. Whistleblowers were encouraged to come forward and given full anonymity. As a result, 140 cases from the public and private sector were taken to court,” said Skandalis.

Chair of the House Legal Affairs Committee, ruling DISY MP George Georgiou said the whistleblowing law was put on hold after a request from the Justice Ministry.

“We were waiting for some amendments to be filed by the ministry, while we had to deal with urgent bills which had to do with EU harmonisation, which if delayed, Cyprus would have to pay hefty fines.”

Georgiou said the protection of whistleblowers is crucial for the detection, effective investigation and prosecution of criminal activity for which there is a particular difficulty in identifying perpetrators.

Tackling Bribery

A Justice Ministry official said the bill seeks to target corruption cases relating to bribery of state officials as a priority.

The official said the government bill is of “crucial importance for the detection and effective investigation and prosecution of criminal activity and the completion of the existing legal protection framework for witnesses.”

Earlier this week, Green MP Charalambos Theopemptou called for the speeding up of the process, while the Greens also submitted their own amendment, demanding the inclusion of whistleblowers in cases where the environment is damaged.

The Green MP said Cyprus is in desperate need of such a law as there were many cases, especially in the public sector, where people came forward to report wrongdoing in the public sector but ended up being punished by their superiors.

Theopemptou said that a law protecting whistleblowers, but also the people being reported, will go a long way in reversing the negative image Cyprus has when it comes to corruption.

He added that not even the Republic’s Attorney General’s office has procedures to protect whistleblowers.

“The state is also losing out, as significant revenue is currently going down the drain due to wrongdoing in the public and private sector.”

Theopemptou said that the bill currently discussed does not include the protection of whistleblowers reporting on environmental destruction, which is expected to be pointed out by the EU.

AKEL MP Charalambidou, who submitted a law proposal in 2016, told the Financial Mirror, that the discussion on each article of the legislation proposed by the Justice Ministry is complete and the bill should go to the Plenary in a couple of weeks, without the parties having stated their positions.

"it is of the utmost importance that the protection of whistleblowers should be institutionalised. This is currently being demonstrated by the way the Privacy Commissioner is dealing with the issue regarding a whistleblower coming forward in a corruption, fraud and money laundering case involving lottery firm OPAP."

The privacy commissioner has openly rowed with the Auditor General as she is demanding that the identity of the whistleblower in a case is revealed but the Auditor refuses to reveal his source, claiming that he wanted to protect the whistleblower.

“Protecting whistleblowers is essential if we want to get anywhere in combating corruption. Whistleblowers have given make-or-break information in a number of cases. From small cases such as nepotism practices in the public service