Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Whistleblower Protection Bill: A License to Squeal

Two Fridays ago (May 19), I attended a conference at the Asian Institute of Management in Makati City. The whole-day conference discussed ways on how to institute a “positive whistleblowing culture” as a way to combat corruption in the Philippines. It was attended by top officials of the Ombudsman, DOJ, Sandiganbayan, NGOs, media, private corporations and members of Congress. Even former Ombudsman Simeon Marcelo and former BIR Commissioner Rene Bañez, who are seldom seen in public today, attended the said conference.

I attended the conference as a proxy for Congressman Raul Gonzalez, Jr., who was in Iloilo City at that time. I helped the Congressman craft his House Bill No. 3948 or “The Whistleblower Protection Act” and I went there to share my insights and thoughts on the bill. There are currently 8 versions of the bill in the House and 2 versions in the Senate. I am proud to say that we were the very first to file a whistleblower bill in Congress, which Malacañang has certified as urgent. I am happy to see the widespread interest and support that the bill has generated from the academe, NGOs, foreign-funding agencies and private corporations.

Whistleblower protection is probably the greatest element lacking in our government’s anti-corruption campaign today. While we already have a Witness Protection Program under the Department of Justice, our government does not have a clear-cut policy on whistleblowers, or people who expose anomalies and illegal activities that they witness in their work.

One reason why cases against corrupt officials are not filed in this country is that no one reports it. And why not? If you report an illegal activity done by your superiors, you stand to be demoted, “freezed” or fired from your work. You will be ostracized and avoided by your peers and officemates. Or worse, the corrupt official you blew the whistle on might decide to have you assassinated. Society view whistleblowers not as heroes but as “traidor,” “wala utang nga loob,” “nagmamalinis,” “gapa hero hero,” or “abi mo kung sin-o sya.” In other words, it doesn’t pay to be a whistleblower in this country.

This is the condition which House Bill No. 3948 (and all other versions of whistleblower legislation) hopes to correct. The said bill seeks to grant financial rewards to whistleblowers and protect them from reprisals like dismissals, demotions, “freezing” and assassination.

If you really think about it, whistleblowers serve the public interest and contribute to the overall reduction of graft and corruption by exposing wrongdoing in government. It is therefore to the State’s interest to protect whistleblowers. One good example is Dr. Jiang Yanyong of China who disobeyed his government’s gag order and forced China to publicly reveal the SARS virus. His revelation enabled the world to prepare and to prevent the spread of the virus. Dr. Jiang’s act of bravery probably saved millions of lives.

In the Philippines, we have SPO2 delos Reyes (who exposed the Kuratong Baleleng rubout), Chavit Singson (whose Senate testimony toppled Erap Estrada), Acsa Ramirez (who exposed wrongdoings in the Land Bank), and Sulpicio Tagud (who exposed anomalies in PEA) to mention only a few. Irregardless of your political leanings or personal opinion of these people, they without a doubt contributed to the public good by exposing the wrong that they witnessed in their midst. The State should therefore protect and reward these brave people who risk ruined careers, ostracism and bodily harm just to promote the public good.

In Puerto Princesa City, Palawan, everyone is a whistleblower, even children. Some years back, their City Council passed an anti-littering ordinance and people there would really report you to authorities if you throw even just a cigarette butt or candy wrapper on the street. Senator Rodolfo Biazon, a chain-smoker, and even their own mayor, Mayor Edward Hagedorn, learned this the hard way. A little kid saw them throw their cigarette butts and reported them to Barangay Tanods. Both were ticketed and fined for their violation. Plus, the kid was rewarded: the City Ordinance provides that informers or whistleblowers get a part of the fine collected from every anti-littering violation they report.

The condition in Puerto Princesa is what political scientists call a “positive whistleblowing culture.” It is an atmosphere wherein inappropriate behavior is generally challenged and questioned at all levels. Our country still has a long way to go to achieve this state since the pakikisama system is too ingrained in our culture. But by giving our people a “license to squeal” so to speak, the bill hopefully will serve as a catalyst that will embolden our people to blow the whistle on corrupt officials.

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