Blow that whistle!

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Truth be told, the statements from academic experts and former government officials in the Caribbean region regarding an “anti-informant” culture in this part of the world, was, to us, a case of stating the obvious.   That said, we are glad that persons are speaking out about this because it is very important to our societies. 

We have a great appreciation for ‘whistle-blowers’ because of the business we are in.  Without the brave people who blow the whistle on wrongdoing, much of the ‘badness’ would remain in the dark.  Whistle-blowers are vital to helping us fulfil our mission of shining light into the darkness.  They help to provide a level of transparency where none exists.

Conscience drives most of the whistle-blowers that provide information to this media organisation and we dare say, most others across the Caribbean.  We say that because the vast majority of the people who come forward with information prefer to stay anonymous for fear of victimisation.  They derive no financial compensation for their efforts and their only reward is a clear conscience and the knowledge that they did the right thing. 

Much of the discussion at hand is whether there are sufficient legislation and institutions in place in Antigua & Barbuda to protect individuals who report unethical activity.   However, as pointed out by the experts, legislation is one thing but cultural barriers may prove to be the greatest hurdle.

Imani Duncan Price, co-executive director of the Caribbean Policy Research Institute and former senator in Jamaica used local parlance to illustrate the point.  “In Jamaica”, she said, “we say, ‘Informer fuh dead’.” She punctuated the point by saying, “… In some cases, people do die.”  That reference, while of Jamaican origin, highlighted the fact that in our small Caribbean communities whistle-blowing can be met with dire consequences. 

Recently, Prime Minister Gaston Browne indicated that he would support a whistle-blowing protection clause in the Integrity inPublic Life Act and that is a good first step.  However, as local attorney David Dorsette pointed out the clause would be a “feel good” inclusion to the legislation, and it would not make a meaningful difference in rooting out corruption in the government.

The point that Dorsette is making is that laws do little to change culture and the fact of the matter is, our experience and size overshadow the impact of the laws.  The laws may protect you from going to jail, but there are other aspects to life for which the laws provide no defence, but are equally as devastating, if not more so.  That is not to say that we should not push forward and enact these laws, or we should just give up, but rather, we need the highest offices in our land to show tangible support for whistle-blowers beyond just passing laws. 

Attorney at law and member of the Antiguans & Barbudans for Constitutional Reform & Education (ABCRE) recently made the salient point that “it’s important for people to feel free that when they see something that is not right, they can come forward and say that  … whatever activities are illegal or unethical … without fear of being arrested or worse.”  We will go further and say that whistle-blowers should be rewarded.  There should be some mechanism where persons see a benefit to taking the risk of becoming a whistle-blower.

What that mechanism is or what the compensation structure should be, we have no idea, but it would go a long way towards changing the cultural mindset that currently exists in Antigua & Barbuda and the wider Caribbean.

If we look at the United States as an example, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), both promote and maintain financial fraud whistle-blower programmes.  The ‘reward’ for whistle-blowers who provide original information, leading to successful enforcement action, can range from 10 per cent to 30 per cent of monetary sanctions over $1 million.  This can result in a financial windfall for contributors, with the largest award being approximately $30 million a few years ago.  That is a lot of money, but when you compare it to a fine of $100 – $300 million, the benefit outweighs the cost on a purely financial side.  Consider it a commission.

Lending credence to the concept is a report entitled, “The Impact of Whistle-blowers on Financial Misrepresentation Enforcement Actions.”   That report found that, on average, penalties, when whistle-blowers are involved, were almost $93 million more than when no whistle-blower is involved.  Further, executives and employees at firms with whistle-blower involvement are fined on average $56.50 million more and are sentenced to prison for approximately 27 months longer.  Those are some healthy stats that demonstrate the effectiveness of whistle-blower programmes.

That said, we highly doubt that the government of any Caribbean country (at this time) will enact laws, coupled with a rewards programme, to encourage whistle-blowers and possibly change the culture that exists.  That is why we hope that anonymous sites like ourparadiselost.com will be able to get off the ground to bridge the gap.  These wikileaks-type sites offer a supposed “impenetrable” level of anonymity for whistle-blowers by ‘scrubbing’ the information of its origin and making it available to everyone.

While that particular site seems to be dormant, due to what has been described as a suspected state-sponsored hacking attack, we are told that they are beefing up security to provide an outlet for whistle-blowers across the Caribbean.  We are fairly certain that Antigua & Barbuda will feature prominently if it ever gets going.

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