Government must ensure protection of whistleblowers in interior and defence ministries
On 27 September 2015, the media reported about a video which Giorgi Babunashvili, a former senior lieutenant of the police, had obtained from the Ministry of Interior. The material revealed possible violations inside the ministry. According to media reports, the former police officer is currently in Europe and is seeking political asylum. The case of Babunashvili demonstrates several shortcomings of the current legislation for the protection of whistleblowers. These provisions have existed in Georgia since 2009 but, as we have noted before, there are problems in terms of the content of the law, as well as its enforcement and application.
The case of Giorgi Babunashvili is not the first one where public officials acting for public interest cannot enjoy legal protection as whistleblowers due to the shortcomings of the law. For example, in March 2015, the Ministry of Interior dismissed police officer Ruslan Baziashvili, who had provided information about possible violations in the ministry to the member of the Parliament from United National Movement, Givi Targamadze. Furthermore, the Chief Prosecutor’s Office started investigation over possible abuse of power against nine employees of the Ministry of Interior. It is important to emphasize that the fact that Babunashvili and Baziashvili cannot currently enjoy protection as whistleblowers (because of the gaps in the law) does not mean that their actions constituted a crime.
In the cases of both Giorgi Babunashvili and Ruslan Baziashvili, the information published by the former police officers revealed possible violations that harm public interest. To promote disclosure of information about similar violations (which is an important deterrent mechanism against corruption), it is necessary to address certain gaps in the law:
1. The Law on Conflict of Interest and Corruption in Public Service, which also includes regulations for whistleblower protection, does not apply to the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Defence, or the National Security Service’s system. According to Article 20(11) of the law, protection of whistleblowers in the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Defence and the National Security Service’s system is to be regulated by separate legislation, although no such legislation has been adopted to date. Therefore, these institutions lack one of the most important anti-corruption mechanisms and their employees cannot enjoy appropriate protection in case of disclosure of information in the public’s interest.
2. According to the Law on Conflict of Interest and Corruption in Public Service, whistleblowing is defined as provision of information by a whistleblower to a designated body, an investigator, a prosecutor and/or the ombudsman. A whistleblower can only provide information to civil society organizations and the media two months after a decision has been made by the designated body, an investigator, a prosecutor or the ombudsman.
Parliament is currently discussing a draft law that would improve some standards of whistleblower protection. For example, the protection will apply to any person (rather than to civil servants only) and the two-month waiting period for disclosing information to the media and civil society organizations will be abolished. These changes are, without a doubt, a step forward but they are not enough for creating an effective system of whistleblower protection, as the above-mentioned problems remain. It is, therefore, necessary that:
- The existing legislation on whistleblowers protection be extended to cover the Ministries of Interior and Defence, or a new legislation be adopted in a timely manner for these institutions based on the best practices, and the information regarding the whistleblowing procedure be released to the public and the employees of these organizations. Providing necessary information to the employees and the society is crucial, since the legislation on protection of whistleblowers has never been applied in practice in Georgia despite being in place since 2009.
- The draft law discussed in Parliament would abolish the two-month waiting period which is a whistleblower is required to observe in order to be legally able to provide information to the media and the civil society. However the case of Babunashvili clearly shows (at least in regards to whistleblowing in the law enforcement agencies) that a whistleblower should be able to contact media and civil society directly. Informing the society during an investigation period creates guarantees that the investigation process will be conducted appropriately. Giving a whistleblower an opportunity to directly contact the media and the civil society is especially important due to the fact that violations in Georgia’s law enforcement agencies are investigated not by an independent agency but by an entity that is part of law enforcement system (General Inspectorate) whose activities have raised questions at times.
For these reasons, we believe, that the government of Georgia should ensure immediate adoption of proposed changes, so that the guarantees of protection of whistleblowers are strengthened and should promote whistleblowing. Undertaking to raise the awareness of civil servants and the general public is a vital part of this process.