The author, Ermin Zatega, is an investigative journalist with the Prijavite.ba platform. This article originally appeared in Oslobodjenje here.
Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) is one of the world’s most corrupt societies, ranking 101 among 180 countries in Transparency International’s annual report (where “1” (Denmark) is perceived as the least corrupt, and “180” (Somalia) the most).Corruption is evident not just in small daily indignities such as bribes to pass an exam or to secure a public service, but is also manifest in more substantial ways, such as the purchase and falsification of diplomas by persons in important official positions. Since the war it has been progressively infected by “systemic political corruption,” which has metastasized in public institutions from the municipality level to state level institutions. The justice system – including both the police and the courts – which should both deter and punish such acts is inefficient, politicized and compromised; while this was detailed in the EU’s own Priebe Report in late 2019, the report was then simply ignored. And this is not just an inconvenience; citizens have lost their lives following their decision to become whistleblowers and to report corruption. Some were “rewarded” for their integrity and bravery with death threats, workplace intimidation, job termination; their family members were also often targets of retaliation.
While preliminary efforts have been made toward more systemic protection of whistleblowers in BiH, it is far from satisfactory. Laws on the protection of whistleblowers were adopted at the state level and entity level in the Republika Srpska (RS) over the past seven years. However, the state law only offers protection to whistleblowers from state institutions, which employ around 22,000 civil servants. The RS Law on the Protection of Whistleblowers was adopted in 2017, and to date there is no available information on how often the Law has been used. The law in the Federation entity has been stuck in parliamentary procedure for two years because the Board of the House of Peoples has continuously avoided putting it on its agenda. There is nothing regulating this at the level of canton or municipality. In addition to the lack of consistent legislation, the lack of political and institutional will to enforce the scanty legislation that exists means that whistleblowers are without any protection in the greater part of BiH. And this affects not only corruption, as a rocky road lies ahead for those who dare to report other types of damaging social phenomena, such as political or religious extremism, or other gross violations of human rights.
Even members of parliament are not protected from threats and political retaliation, as was demonstrated by the case of Sabina Čudić. Čudić published data on the abuse of residents of a public institution responsible for the care of children and youth with special needs. She was a target of verbal public attacks as well as online bullying and threats, leading her to state that there is a legal paradox. The Criminal Code punishes those who fail to report abuse, while, at the same time, the laws do not provide any protection from retaliation to those who do report it. In addition, a complaint against Čudić has been filed with the Ethics Committee of the Parliament FBiH by the Union for a Better Future of BiH (SBB), but the Committee has not yet acted upon the complaint.
Ensuring that people can safely report such abuses of power and official corruption is a global issue. There has been a raft of whistleblowers who have sought to shed light on the Trump administration in the US, ranging from some who have sought to keep their identities anonymous to those who have gone public. In 2013, Howard Wilkinson hoped to remain anonymous after he blew a whistle as a manager at Danske Bank, reporting a $230 billion money-laundering-scheme that funneled dirty money from Russia to the USA through Europe. But since his name was leaked to the media he is now forced to live with the grave concern that dangerous criminals may hunt him down and do him harm.
While deciding to become a whistleblower is an act of individual courage, technology plays a role in ensuring that documents may be shared with the media, the public and independent bodies in a secure way. In some countries, independent media outlets play this role; the New York Times offers a SecureDrop feature, as does The Guardian. Such tools are dependent on trust in the reputations and integrity of these media. However, there is space for public interest advocacy groups to become involved and offer similar tools. Prijavite.ba seeks to begin to play this role, and to build a supportive environment for whistleblowers to be able to share information in the public interest with confidence and protected anonymity. The Prijavite.ba platform was modelled after a similar tool that is in used in the City of Barcelona.
Secure drop tools are only one element in creating more accountable governments. Once this information is shared, it is then necessary that information be used by responsible institutions, and that inspectors and prosecutors follow up on such leads so that in cases of abuse, malfeasance, self-dealing and incompetent stewardship of the public trust, there are consequences.
This is easier said than done, of course. The recent demotion of Emir Mesic, who blew the whistle about financial irregularities he observed in his place of employment at the Indirect Taxation Authority, shows the risks that individuals can take when they are punished for doing what they believe is their civic duty.
Many criminal acts would remain hidden and invisible without whistleblowers or “inside” people reporting on this abuse. Public opinion polls consistently show that the vast majority of citizens find corruption to be BiH’s biggest problem. Yet in spite of the frustration and the affront to the dignity of people whose rights are trampled and whose tax contributions are misallocated or stolen, the pressure from party-controlled institutions can be heavy and understandably feared. Technology cannot solve everything, but can make a more supportive environment in which citizens feel they can finally do the right thing, and can create more pressure for government institutions to do the right thing as well.