A whistleblower is a person who raises concern or awareness about a wrongdoing in their workplace, either state or private.
In the recent years, with the testimonies of Edward Snowden (an American computer professional, former CIA and US Government employee who copied classified information from the United States National Security Agency (the “NSA”) in 2013 without prior authorization. This information revealed numerous global surveillance progams and brought the issue of privacy, security and surveillance to global discussion), Julian Assange (the founder of Wikileaks that publishes secret information, news leaks, and classified media from anonymous sources), and Bradley Manning (a US army officer who disclosed information to Wikileaks), whistleblowing has become a much discussed topic receiving equal amounts of support and opposition.
Whistleblowing, however, has been practiced for centuries. From the Ramayana, where Vibhishan, younger brother of the King of Lanka, Ravana, informs Ram about the whereabouts of Sita, the consort of Ram, to the Watergate scandal that toppled the presidency of Richard Nixon on the information provided by a secret informant known as Deep Throat (revealed in 2005 as Mark Felt). Whistleblowing has grave consequences for the accused and the accuser. The whistleblower, though seemingly working for the greater good, is oft seen as dangerous and misguided (e.g. why did he have to make the information public, why didn’t he use the correct mechanisms) and forced to live either in hiding, never revealing his identity, or in exile.
In Pakistan, there is no specific legislation on whistleblower protection on a Federal level. Within the provinces, only Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, vide the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Right to Information Act, 2013 (the “KPK 2013 Act”), provisions for the protection of whistleblowers (Section 30). Section 30 of the KPK 2013 Act provides for protection of whistleblowers as follows:
30. Whistleblowers.—(1) No one may be subject to any legal, administrative or employment related sanction, regardless of any breach of a legal or employment obligation, for releasing information on wrongdoing, or which would disclose a serious threat to health, safety or the environment, as long as they acted in good faith and in the reasonable belief that the information was substantially true and disclosed evidence of wrongdoing or a serious threat to health, safety or the environment.
(2) For purposes of sub-section (1), wrongdoing includes the commission of a criminal offence, failure to comply with a legal obligation, a miscarriage of justice, corruption or dishonesty, or serious maladministration regarding a public body.
The other provinces also have similar acts: Punjab has the Right to Information Act, 2013; Balochistan has enacted the Freedom of Information Act, 2005; and Sindh has enacted the Sindh Freedom of Information Act, 2006 (collectively referred to as the “Acts”). However, there is no provision in the Acts which is analogous to Section 30 of the KPK 2013 Act or provides for protection of whistleblowers.
The fate of whistleblowers is, therefore, left to the jurors deciding each case upon its facts. The following factors act as a deterrent against whistleblowing:
- Red-tapism; no outcome of the complaint made using the correct procedures, if any, available.
- Defences, such as national security, interest of the state, and confidentiality obligations, argued, usually successfully, by the accused.
- No procedure for the protection of the identity of the whistleblower.
The Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution of Pakistan, 1973, with the insertion of Article 19A, allowed citizens the right to have access to information in all matters of public importance. The Eighteenth Amendment was an attempt to bring information “in all matters of public importance” to the public sphere. Public bodies, officials, institutions were now required to record, store and be accountable for the information used and processed by them. Unfortunately, the Eighteenth Amendment was qualified with the proviso “subject to regulation and reasonable restrictions imposed by law” that resulted in curtailing the rights of citizens. The proviso provided an opening for the holders of information to restrict access. The only remedy available to citizens seeking information under Article 19A is challenging any refusal in the courts which include the usual issues with court proceedings, i.e. years of litigation, costs, waste of time, etc.
The text of Article 19A is as follows:
19A. Right to information.−Every citizen shall have the right to have access to information in all matters of public importance subject to regulation and reasonable restrictions imposed by law.
Myra Khan is a Barrister-at-Law from the Honourable Society of Lincoln’s Inn and Vice Chairperson Women Rights Committee of the Lahore High Court Bar Association. She is currently practicing law in Lahore, Pakistan.