In 2019, whistleblowers get their due

Global views on whistleblowers got a boost after one in the U.S. made allegations against President Trump. Even Ukraine just passed a law protecting whistleblowers.

Reuters
President Trump shakes hands with Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy at the United Nations Sept. 25.

Congress has yet to determine the guilt or innocence of President Donald Trump over his alleged wrong behavior with Ukraine. Yet one thing is sure: The world has witnessed the powerful impact of a whistleblower calling out his or her boss. On Sept. 18, an unnamed official in an intelligence agency blew the whistle on Mr. Trump over a July phone call with the Ukrainian president, setting in motion the impeachment probe by the House.

The impact of this complaint by a government employee may go far beyond determining the president’s future. It is also a highly visible example of America’s long history, especially since the 1970s, of encouraging individuals driven by conscience to shine a light on malfeasance in order to protect the integrity of their company or government office.

Not all complaints are valid, of course, yet enough of them expose wrongdoing that Congress and most states keep adding protections for whistleblowers in both government and business. Ukraine, in fact, approved its own whistleblower law last week. The move, just one measure among many anti-corruption efforts under a new president, may have been pushed along in part by the role of the Washington whistleblower.

But Ukraine is also being swept up in a global trend of whistleblower laws. In October, the European Parliament approved a directive to protect from retaliation employees who report crime, corruption, and public health dangers from retaliation. Countries in the European Union have two years to implement the law. The mood in Europe shifted after a French accountant, Antoine Deltour, exposed widespread tax evasion by multinational businesses operating through shell companies in Luxembourg. Despite attempts to punish him for his actions, he endured. “The worst thing for a whistleblower,” Mr. Deltour said, “is not to be heard. The world then makes no sense.”

In February, Australia passed a new standard for whistleblower protection. Also this year, Lebanon and Tunisia became the first Middle East countries to pass such laws. And in June, the Group of 20, made up of leading rich and developing nations, further cemented a global norm by endorsing a set of principles for “effective” protection of whistleblowers. One reason: An estimated one-third of foreign bribery cases were the result of a whistleblower.

Whistleblowing provides more than a backward-looking effect in punishing corruption. A landmark study at the University of Iowa in 2016 showed a significant decrease in financial irregularities at companies after a whistleblower incident. Both bosses and employees reacted by becoming better guardians of their company’s integrity.

When historians look back on 2019, they may decide that the world crossed a threshold in making it safe for individuals to speak out about wrongdoing. Acts of integrity should not be acts of courage. They should simply be normal.

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