The public perception of whistleblowing in the Middle East and North Africa region is not fully developed, although it varies from country to country. There have been very few cases of whistleblowers that have gained attention in the media, and it certainly is not part of the mainstream. According to Transparency International, no country within the region is considered to have adequate whistleblower safeguards or to provide reliable channels for reporting about instances of corruption. In addition, there are few explicit legal provisions that allow workers to blow the whistle on abuse of public resources, negligence, environmental hazards, or threats to the health and safety of the public.
Cultures of patronage, nepotism, and the use of connections pervade the countries of the region, and inefficient government bureaucracy worsens the situation.Challenges to whistleblowing have been reported in Morocco and Yemen, where a number of journalists have been attacked, and the risk of physical reprisal against truth-saying is higher. While, for instance, Morocco has stronger whistleblower protections (In Morocco, a new anti-corruption strategy was adopted in 2015), the country, along with others of the region, is in need of better labor protections for whistleblowers in the workplace.
Country context determines how whistleblowers fare, as countries with stronger democratic institutions and respect for human rights. Political will and reform are needed to bring the region the systemic change necessary to include the voices of whistleblowers as conscious individuals promoting a more transparent society.
The uprisings first took place in Tunisia during Dec 2010-2011 and inspired people in the Middle East and North Africa to rise first in solidarity with Tunisia, and then in defiance against their own corrupt authoritarian regimes, which culminated into the “Arab Spring”.
On December 17, 2010, in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, when a young 26-year-old street vendor, Mohammed Bouazizi, had his “unlicensed” vegetable cart and goods confiscated by a police woman, he set himself on fire after being publicly humiliated.
Bouazizi did not have funds to bribe police officials to allow him to continue street vending. Bouazizi’s self-immolation triggered protests that spread across Tunisia, and even further across the Middle East and North Africa. His self-immolation brought to the forefront public frustrations and demands for better governance, improved welfare and regime change. People were ready to protest large-scale corruption that had led to the decline of their livelihoods over the years.
The uprising in Tunisia eventually exposed the large scale corruption that was centralized around the Tunisia`s inner circle who controlled large percentage of the country’s private economy, real estate, hotels, airlines, telecommunications and automobile industries, which had wrecked the economy and left Tunisians with no prospects of getting a decent job. Moreover, low-level officials solicit bribes to supplement their low wages. The burden on workers to pay bribes for essential services is a cause of endless frustration, in addition to an incompetent bureaucracy that is unable to deliver those services. Young people seeking work knew that the only means of finding employment was by bribing a potential employer, or having excellent connections to politicians and powerful businessmen.
Given the link between corruption and employment, trade unions are ideally positioned to fight against corruption, as they are often one of the most organized and structured parts of civil society. In Tunisia, it is the powerful and 2015 Nobel Peace Prize recipient, the General Union of Tunisia Workers, the UGTT, which has been critically involved at every stage of the democratic transition since the revolution.
The UGTT Sidi Bouzid Branch was seen as the driving force behind the initial protests that erupted in Mohamed Bouazizi’s home town. From the first spark of the Tunisian revolution, UGTT activists were at the forefront through its 150 offices across the country.
After the revolution the UGTT mobilized its resources to engage in national dialogue that significantly contributed to Tunisia’s process of democratic transition, and the fight against corruption earning the UGTT and the three other civil society organizations that comprised the Quartet (the Tunisian League for Human Rights; the Tunisian Union for Industry, Trade and Handicrafts; and the National Bar Association) the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015, for the adoption of a new progressive constitution in 2014, in which the fight against corruption is highlighted as a national objective, and held fair parliamentary and presidential elections.
National Anti-Corruption Strategy was adopted in 2016 with progress in the legal frameworks, including the introduction of a new law that protects whistleblowers, and the establishment of an anti-corruption agency such as the Authority for Good Governance and the Fight against Corruption (Instance nationale de lutte contre la corruption – INLUCC), in reality, corruption is still prevalent in post revolution Tunisia. Anti-corruption agencies that have been established lack the resources to effectively conduct their work. The effectiveness and implementation of laws on access to information and protection of whistleblowers, though important, is yet to be seen. Most citizens do not believe the government is doing enough to reduce corruption in Tunisia. The establishment of a system of good governance to fight corruption in state services has seen mismanagement and corruption in the public service sector due to weak government authority. There is also a lack of awareness among citizens to where or how to report a case of corruption, or any existing safe reporting mechanisms.
The UGTT and trade unions, in general, as membership organizations possess the ability and capacity to help fight against corruption by making reporting channels and mechanisms more effective and safe, and better protecting “whistleblowers” and witnesses of corrupt acts. The UGTT is now playing an instrumental role in creating an awareness of the legal framework and reporting mechanisms.
In 2018, the UGTT signed a partnership agreement with the National Anti-Corruption Authority against corruption which aims to: work to consolidate the principles of good governance and the values of integrity and transparency and fight against corruption; establish joint action programs according to a well-defined timetable; develop awareness programs on the negative effects of the scourge of corruption at the central, regional and sectoral levels.
Dozens of training sessions were held in 2018 and 2019 by the UGTT in partnership with Solidarity Center and in the presence of the president of the INLUCC in the different regions of the country to equip regional union activists of the public service sector with the basic principles of good governance.