A school teacher who was penalised for speaking to the media has won her case at the Supreme Court and received compensation from the school principal who attempted to fire her for her perceived “disloyalty”. The case underscores the need for public servants to be allowed to play the role of whistle-blowers without being penalised as it is an essential function of good governance.
In Sri Lanka’s deeply-politicised public system, top posts are often decided by politicians. Ministry secretaries, for example, are appointed by the Minister and during every Cabinet reshuffle a fresh set of appointments are made, undermining the independence of public servants.
The Financial Regulations and Administrative Regulations assume that ministry secretaries have the power to make independent decisions when they simply do not because their jobs are in the hands of politicians. This leads to negligence and in some instances blatant collaboration with corrupt practices because public servants do not have the freedom to speak out.
President Maithripala Sirisena’s assurance this week that his Government will uphold the Right to Information is hollow when viewed in this context. If even teachers have to resort to the Supreme Court to retain their jobs, then what is the guarantee other public servants have that they will be protected?
Why is it that the Government, having come to power promising good governance, is so reluctant to introduce whistle blower protection and give fair hearing to public officials? Why is it not possible to empower public officials? Why should they not act as policy watchdogs? Why should their careers be under the power of politicians? As public servants they exist to work in public interest, not protect political agendas.
Governments have a responsibility to facilitate whistleblowing and in so doing protect public interest whistle-blowers. Laws which recognise the right of those who act in the public interest not to suffer harm or threats of harm and which build on the democratic principles of free speech and freedom of information are critical. They provide individuals a safe alternative to the silence that allows negligence and wrongdoing to take root.
Whistleblower protection also offers an important alternative to anonymous leaks – a form of self-preservation which can compromise both the public interest and the whistleblower. International instruments on whistleblower protection have, for the most part, recognised the importance of having whistleblower protection laws in place as part of an effective anti-corruption framework. Legislation provides a good foundation on which to develop legal and institutional frameworks to facilitate whistleblowing and protect whistle-blowers for a wider category of public interest information.
While it is incumbent on governments to facilitate safe and effective channels for whistleblowing and to protect whistle-blowers, civil society has a complementary role in advocating for the protection of those who come forward to safeguard the public interest, particularly when it challenges Government authority. An engaged civil society can ensure that the legal and practical responses to whistleblowing are effective and appropriately applied over the long term.
A Government that wishes to view itself as genuinely accountable needs to stop crushing its dissenters. Passing Right to Information (RTI) and other legislation is moot if implementation is undermined and an officials right to stand up for what is right is compromised by petty politics.