The anti-corruption heroes – Nadeem Iqbal

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Pakistan’s struggle against corruption is as old as itself, yet it remains a bureaucratic exercise without any anti-corruption hero – whistleblower, distinguished informer, a public or private official who braved out of a corrupt situation, the anonymous whistleblower who is rewarded after conviction is done or posthumously decorated.

Although there have been laws in the country rewarding people for bravery, excellence in research and artistic activities, secretly providing information to police, tax authorities and anti-corruption establishments but taking a public stand against corruption – against all odds – is not worth an official recognition.

There has recently been legislation protecting whistleblowers in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and at the federal level but the laws are still in infancy and far from implementation. In fact, there are certain provisions and exemptions in the laws that discourage any person from blowing the whistle.

Indeed, Prime Minister Imran Khan has reinvented the wheel by announcing his government’s plan to give a 20 percent cash reward from the recovered amount to a successful whistleblower. Such an award was announced by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) in 2016 as well. It said that any informant providing factual information with prosecutable evidence would be rewarded up to 20 percent of the recovered amount and if any evidence of corruption were provided against a NAB employee, the reward will be Rs1 million.

NAB’s message of ‘Say No to Corruption’ is widely spread, among other ways also by printing it on utility bills. However, those who remained steadfast against corruption and faced the consequences of saying no to the corrupt are yet to be identified publicly or rewarded. This concept of incentivizing informers has been ingrained in the tax and customs system. These informers or complainants, however, remain anonymous.

International best practice guidelines on whistleblowing discourage secret information disclosures, since it is felt that anonymous allegations are difficult for law enforcers to pursue, and that a culture of anonymous disclosures is unhealthy. It is recommended that the aim of whistleblower systems should be to create a climate where people do not feel compelled to raise issues anonymously.

Pakistan’s constitution also provides for honoring and decorating distinguished civilians, but the definitions are quite restrictive. The president awards decorations in recognition of gallantry, academic distinction or distinction in the field of sports or nursing. Civil awards to Pakistani nationals are announced only once a year on Independence Day (August 14).

In accordance with the Decorations Act, 1975 the original term gallantry has been further redefined to include an act of bravery, heroism, courage, and rendering dedicated services with selfless devotion in human rights and public service. The term ‘academic distinction’ as used in the Decorations Act, 1975, includes research, the achievement of performance in the field of medicine, science, engineering, technology, philosophy, history, literature or the arts as well as inventions of national importance. The President’s Award for Pride of Performance can be conferred for outstanding achievements in the fields of arts, literature, science, sports, nursing, human rights, and public service. The award money is Rs1 million only. Anti-corruption crusaders have yet to find their mention in the list.

In 2016, the PTI government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa took the right step in this direction by enacting the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Whistleblower Protection and Vigilance Commission Act. The aim is to enable the citizens of KP to make public interest disclosures that relate to irregular, illegal or corrupt practices and to protect them from disadvantageous measures, and give them rewards for such public interest disclosure and matters connected therewith.

Public interest disclosure is defined as any declaration of information by an individual or agency who reasonably believes that such information may prevent an action that of corruption or corrupt practices. Ironically, despite the passage of three years that commission has yet to be formed in KP.

Whistleblower protection laws are being made in line with the United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) that Pakistan signed in 2003. It refers to a whistleblower as “any person who reports in good faith and on reasonable grounds to the competent authorities any facts concerning offences established in accordance with this convention”.

This definition has trickled down to legislation done by Pakistan’s parliament in 2017, the ‘Public Interest Disclosure Act’. The Act is to provide a mechanism for public interest disclosures to prevent corruption and corrupt practices and protect persons making such disclosures.

In the Act, ‘disclosure’ means a complaint relating to willful misuse of power or willful misuse of discretion by virtue of which substantial loss is caused to the government or substantial wrongful gain accrues to the public servant or third party; and commission of or an attempt to commit an offence of corruption or corrupt practices as defined in the National Accountability Bureau Ordinance 1999 or any other law relating to corruption includes offence committed through electronic mail or device.

To date, this law is also inactive. Instead, the PTI government has introduced a new bill in the National Assembly for the establishment of a Whistleblower Protection and Vigilance Commission Act at the federal level. The proposed legislation is not much different from the existing Public Interest Disclosure Act. The only addition is the provision for the reward to the whistleblower of 20 percent of the recovered amount.

Since the proof of the pudding is really in the eating, the efficacy of these laws in bringing out whistleblowers in public will only be judged when enforced. However, broadly international guidelines say that there are several key questions individuals may ask themselves when deciding whether or not to report a wrongdoing: Is the information I have worth reporting? How many details do I need to provide and what factors should I consider before I report? Who should I report to and are there different options? What kind of protection can I expect immediately, and what happens if someone retaliates against me at a later stage? How will the information be handled by those I report to? Who can provide help and advice?

From the perspective of the person reporting, these are pragmatic and serious considerations. From the perspective of governments, considering how to answer these questions is a helpful way to identify what needs to be addressed within the laws and national systems in order to make it easier and safer for whistleblowers.

The writer is a freelance contributor.