Whistleblower or snitch-How the Albanian media (mis)understands whistleblowing

Mirsada Hallunaj

June, 2018

Albania’s new Law on Whistleblowing is an essential feature in the entire scope of efforts to fight corruption. The process of drafting the law, officially announced by the Ministry of Justice and National Anti-Corruption Coordinator in May 2014, was supported by the Dutch Embassy with the assistance of international legal experts.

The entire process – including drafting the law and adopting sublegal acts and guidelines until the law entered into force initially for the public sector in October 2016 – was aimed at achieving a comprehensive participation of various stakeholders involved in law’s implementation and monitoring, such as central and local public institutions, private companies, civil society, the business community and interest groups.

Among these stakeholders, the media in Albania was considered a key component in the process, due to its role in informing and raising awareness on the content and implementation of the whistleblower law. Since the law introduces a new practice to report wrongdoing, and its implementation is actually in the initial phase, the media’s role assumes a great importance. Also, comprehensive information from the High Inspectorate of Declaration and Audit of Assets and Conflicts of Interest (HIDAACI) regarding first implementation results and the impact performance soon will be made public.

Apart from their role in informing and raising awareness about whistleblowing, the print and broadcasting media are also influential in reporting corruption by initiating, investigating and reporting on various corruption cases in the country. This is especially important considering that, as in other Balkan countries, revealing and denouncing corruption remains a real challenge in Albania.

Furthermore, considering Albanians’ positive perceptions of the media, it seems that media can be an important mechanism not only to raise awareness on the law, but also to serve as a supporting mechanism for implementing the law and exposing corruption.

Nevertheless, since the beginnings of law’s drafting to the present, a number of issues have been raised about the media’s approach toward the law and the whistleblowing as a practice. This presents a serious concern, considering the unique role of the media in shaping the public opinion.

Media culpa: Many journalists miss the point

The media in Albania reported on the whistleblower law mostly during the process of drafting and adopting the law, and when the law entered in force. A review of these articles reveals a number of inaccuracies and misinformation.

At the same time, there have been flaws in understanding and interpretation of whistleblowing as a practice and the law itself.

Considering that whistleblowing is a little known practice in Albania, one of the first challenges when drafting the law was to identify an adequate term for the Albanian language. Discussions on this issue were considered important as the need to identify the correct term was not merely related with the definition in Albanian language, but in particular with the process of understanding a new concept and practice established to report corruption and other wrongdoing.

In March 2015 Dutch Embassy conducted a competition to arrive at a more precise definition of the term “whistleblowing.” The results were not made public. The Parliament in 2016 approved the Law on Whistleblowing, which provides respective definitions on the practice of whistleblowing.

Despite progress made during the drafting of the law, the Albanian media generally misunderstood the process and reported on it inaccurately. Most of these mistakes related to the use of incorrect terminology.

The media’s main misunderstanding has been comparing whistleblowing to “snitching.” Contrary to “snitch,” a highly negative term used during the communist regime, whistleblowers serve the public interest by exposing corruption, illegal and harmful acts that officials and citizens have the right – if not the need – to know. Interestingly, public officials themselves have clarified the abuse of terms used by the media, emphasizing once again the importance of providing accurate information on the law.

All of this disinformation has had consequences on the interpretation of certain aspects of the law, such as payments for whistleblowers and the employment of “snitches.”

On the other hand, with few exceptions and news coverage, no articles have strived to provide in-depth or correct information on the issue, including the common misunderstandings of the law itself. Media reporting has been fragmented, largely unsatisfactory and not substantive.

Journalists are in a unique position – and one could argue have a professional obligation – to present the issue in a complete and neutral fashion in order to assist Albanian society in understanding the opportunities and challenges that whistleblowing presents.

Media’s role in awareness-raising

As it may naturally be implied, increasing awareness on the whistleblower law and its implementation remains very crucial for normalizing the practice itself. Despite the importance of the media’s role in this process, articles aiming to raise the awareness or promote whistleblowing have been completely absent.

Despite the fact that an awareness and information campaign (articles, news or information and awareness spots) has been formally organized, other initiatives, events, or important reports undertaken in the region, including in Albania, have not been featured by any local media outlets.

A guide on whistleblowing in Albania prepared by the Center for the Study of Democracy and Governance, an important instrument for knowing better public understanding of the law, has been mentioned only in a few articles. And these have presented incorrect information.

The First Consultative Forum on Anti-Corruption in March 2018 devoted an important space to the role of whistleblowing in fighting corruption. Almost none of the media, however, with a few exceptions, addressed whistleblowing as an important element for good governance and promoting democracy.

Because the law is just now being implemented, the media should be more active, inclusive and systematic in presenting the issue to citizens in a clear and understandable way.

The big picture: A big future?

In spite of the challenges faced during the implementation of the law, and problems with the media reporting on corruption and promoting freedom, the need to not prejudice and misunderstand the process is very important. The media’s role in clearly presenting the law and its goals is essential.

First, the media should consider it an important mission to report on the law accurately. Considering that the law is groundbreaking for Albanian society, any misinformation could harm the prospect of it succeeding for the benefit of all people. Even in this regard, the media must play a primary role in the approach and awareness on whistleblowing.

At the same time, the media’s role in the fight against corruption should not be seen as isolated. Given the role of the media in shaping citizens’ perceptions, it therefore also is considered a cooperation instrument with individuals in reporting corruption. This is no exception in Albania, which is ranked first in terms of support for whistleblowing and reporting abuses.

Although the whistleblower law only covers internal reports and not disclosures to the media or the public, it still holds a strong potential to nurture a culture of employee participation in the workplaces. In this way, oversight by the media itself in the ongoing presentation and probing of concrete cases would provide a more active and encouraging approach to people in reporting wrongdoings.

Finally, the media itself must be well prepared and informed to contribute to this important process. The Manual on Reporting of Court and Criminal Cases in the Media, published by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network in Albania (BIRN Albania), provides valuable insights and knowledge to journalists and media outlets. For the first time, whistleblowing is featured in the publication.

Even more important is the fact that 18 journalists from throughout the country were trained on BIRN’s Manual, including protecting sources and whistleblowers. However, given the media’s poor presentation of the issue up until now, it is clear that more work needs to be done.

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