Whistle blower or blackmailer?
Last week, the railway minister faced public outrage over his Assistant Private Secretary (APS) carrying Tk.70 lakh in cash, in a microbus, allegedly heading towards the minister's house. The driver of the vehicle Azam Khan, instead of going to that address, had suddenly swerved the microbus into the premises of the Bangladesh Border Guards headquarters. He drove it inside, stopped the vehicle and raised a hue and cry, alleging that the vehicle was carrying money received as bribes for recruiting railway personnel.
The Guards arrested the people in the microbus, including the driver, and took the money into safe custody. The following day, identities were checked and verified and all except the driver were released. The driver, according to the Border Guards authorities, was later allowed to go. But he is still untraceable. The police are looking for him.
So where did he go? Is he hiding somewhere? If so, from whom? The moot question is why did he take such an action?
But what escaped most of us was that here was a person who "took the initiative" to call attention to an alleged felony, knowing fully well that he could be subsequently punished for this act. We may have, therefore, what the world describes as a typical whistle blower.
The term "whistle blower" comes from England, where a policeman blows his whistle when he spots an illegal activity, drawing the attention of other policemen and passersby. This word is now used in the context of misconduct both in public and corporate organisations (in this case, the recruitment of personnel in the railways) when brought to the notice of the higher authorities.
Usually, whistle blowing is known to carry the "voice of conscience." But can we assume that Azam Khan was such a voice? He had reportedly demanded Tk.5 lakhs out of the 70 lakhs as his share for keeping quiet about this felony. But, as reported, the APS refused to part with any money. The driver then stepped on the accelerator of the microbus and headed into the Border Guard Headquarters and spilled the beans. So, in effect, to many he is more a blackmailer or a blackguard than a whistle blower.
Whistle blowers throughout history told the public or someone in authority about dishonest or illegal activities in a government department or in a private organisation or even in a business company. Sometimes the allegations are made internally. At other times they are made externally to regulators, law enforcement agencies, the media, etc., seeking redress.
Because whistle blowers can face reprisals or personal attacks by the persons or organisations which they accuse, there are laws in many countries now to protect them. A dozen or more countries have enacted whistle blower protection laws to prevent any harm to anyone that spills the beans. The USA, the UK and Canada have such laws. India is now considering adopting a whistle blower protection law. Their Law Commission has recommended what they call Public Interest Disclosure (Protection of Informants) Act. The Indian Upper House, the Rajya Sabah, is now discussing the bill.
Whistle blowing has impacted the history of many countries. In 1971, one Daniel Ellsberg leaked a secret account of the Vietnam War to the New York Times. The paper revealed the endemic deception by US administrations. This subsequently led to public agitation, bringing an end to the war. In 2005, Mark Felt, known for a long time as "Deep Throat," leaked information about US President Richard Nixon's involvement in Watergate. It ultimately led to the resignation of the US president and a prison term for the White House chief of staff.
Julian Assange, the founder and editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks, has supplied 1.2 million leaks to date from 2006, about the shenanigans of US diplomats around the world. He has also provided information about Cablegate, which was the main cause of the recent Tunisian revolution. This has led to other revolutions in the Middle East.
Now what are the types and nature of protection that a whistle blower can expect? These range from protection of his life and that of his family members to protection of his job, pay and his pension. It can also mean providing the whistle blower with a part of the money recovered. We are not sure whether driver Azam Khan had been assured of such protection or reward by any authority that prompted him to make this hasty disclosure.
Whistle blowing is an important mechanism to check corruption in a developing country like Bangladesh. Some of our government offices as well as some private businesses which are prone to corrupt practices could benefit from whistle blowing. But it must be understood that whistle blowing is different from blackmailing. The media, through talk shows as well as informed articles, should make the difference known to the public as well as to the law enforcement agencies. Transparency International could set up a knowledge centre to disseminate to the people the difference between the two as well as inform them of the legal protection that a whistle blower is entitled to.
Can our law makers consider tabling a comprehensive whistle blowing law to protect the whistler and prevent the blackmailer? Bangladesh would then be well on the way to shed the stigma of being one of the most corrupt countries in the world.
In the meantime, if driver Azam Khan is found will he be booked by the police? What could be the likely charges? Can he be accused of blackmailing and extortion? Or will he be simply interrogated and determined as a whistle blower? In that case, would he deserve the protection of the state? But there could be more than what meets the eye. Let us see whether his act is judged as beneficial or as a malfeasance.
The writer is a former Ambassador and a regular commentator on contemporary issues.
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