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news 05 Jun 15

Whistleblowers Get Better Protection in Serbia

A new law on protecting whistleblowers goes into effect on June 5 in Serbia, designed to stop people who report abuses from facing retaliation and boost the fight against corruption.

Igor Jovanovic
BIRN
Belgrade
A new law on protecting whistleblowers goes into effect on June 5 in Serbia. | Photo by Beta

A new law offering stronger protection to those who reveal abuses and corruption goes into effect in Serbia this week.

So far whistleblowers have had only administrative protection from the Anti-corruption Agency, but now they are entitled to court protection if they seek re-employment having been dismissed for reporting corruption, for example.

"For the first time, the state fully stands behind those who suffer because they defend the public interest and dared to point a finger and say, 'This is a crime and I'm not about to keep quiet,'" Justice Minister Nikola Selakovic said in Belgrade on June 3.

Not everyone is entirely happy with the new law. Transparency Serbia has said that the new law fails to prescribe criminal sanctions for those who endanger whistleblowers.

“Although the lack of sanctions will not narrow the scope of protection for whistleblowers, it will not enable the adequate punishment of those responsible for violating the rights of people who report corruption,” Bojana Medenica, a Transparency Serbia representative, told BIRN.

A legal expert with the Pištaljka (Whistle) organization, Jelena Stojanovic, said her group would monitor implementation of the law very carefully.

“In 2014, we had 97 people who obtained formal whistleblower status. When one receives this status, the Anti-corruption agency warns their employers that they must not be a victim of retaliation at the office. But the Agency was not able to protect them legally, and in practice all the whistleblowers lost their jobs or were moved to lower-paid jobs," she told BIRN.

Corruption is widely seen as one of the biggest obstacles facing Serbia on its path towards EU membership.

Transparency International's corruption perceptions index in 2014 ranked Serbia in 78th place out of 175 countries.

The perceptions Index is measured in points, from 0 to 100, and the most corrupted countries are awarded fewest points. In 2014, Serbia had 41 points, one less than in 2013, which means that citizens believe problems with corruption are worsening.

In terms of the region, Serbia is ranked better than Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina, but worse than Macedonia, Montenegro and Croatia.

The new law should now legally protect the whistleblowers from retaliation and harrassment at work. If they feel discriminated against at work after reporting corruption or other abuses, whistleblowers are entitled to get the court protection in an urgent procedure.

The Justice Minister also said that only five European countries had a law on whistleblowers and noted that the Council of Europe sees the Serbian law as one of the best.

However, there is a huge gap in Serbia between the legal framework and actual implementation of the law.

Zorica Dragutinovic, a whistleblower from Veliko Gradiste in southwest Serbia, reported abuses in the local government administration where she worked in October 2012.

Although the Anti-corruption Agency gave her formal whistleblower status she still had numerous problems in the office.

She was downgraded and felt isolated from other colleagues. Her superiors filed several criminal charges against her, so that she even spent three months in custody.

“My colleague said that he could not talk to me - and had to go to the other side of the street," Dragutinovic told the portal Pištaljka on December 8, 2013.

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