Taipei, The Executive Yuan on Thursday passed a draft whistleblower protection act that it says is designed to ensure the safety and rights of public and private-sector employees who report major irregularities to their superiors or government authorities, but some rights activists are concerned the act might discourage Taiwanese people from exercising a fundamental right they currently enjoy -- the right to report problems to the media.
Under the 19-article draft act, individuals hired, entrusted or contracted by a government agency or private entity to carry out work in exchange for payment are to be protected if they blow the whistle on major internal malpractices, such as malfeasance, corruption, money laundering, human trafficking or other offenses, including covering up criminally punishable acts.
To protect the rights of whistleblowers, people who participate in or serve as a witness in a probe, or those who refuse to be involved in or to carry out the unlawful act in question, the act says they cannot be fired, demoted, or suspended by implicated government or private bodies, which also cannot reduce their pay.
The act also forbids the public or private entities from resorting to workplace bullying, disclosing the whistleblower or witnesses' identities without due cause, or engaging in other vengeful acts that could undermine their interests.
However, the bill states that only in circumstances where a whistleblower's report does not receive a response within 30 days after filing should they take the case to elected representatives, news media or social welfare groups. If they don't tell their superiors, the police, prosecutors or a government agency before telling the media, they will not enjoy protection under the act.
Regarding the draft act's prohibition of whistle-blowers from bypassing the first tier of organizations and taking their case directly to the media, Taiwan Association for Human Rights Secretary-General Chiu E-ling said such a rule may raise concerns, particularly considering that the bill is supposed to ensure better protection of whistleblowers.
Chiu said what the government should do instead is to lay down a clearer definition of what constitutes a whistleblower, instead of using procedural rules to block their case and straying from the reasons why it wanted to draw up the act in the first place.
But the Cabinet says this clause in the act is aimed at avoiding unnecessary damage caused by false reports. That's why, it says, the bill proposes a two-tier reporting mechanism, under which the whistleblower should first report the irregularities to their superiors, head of office, a designated person, prosecutors, police, judicial bodies, the Control Yuan, or a responsible ethics department.
If evidence later shows the whistleblower's claims are true, then he or she can still enjoy the protections described in the act, according to the Cabinet.
The draft act stipulates that violators of the whistleblower's rights to protection would be punished in accordance with the Act on Discipline of Civil Servants or other disciplinary rules if they are public servants, or face a fine of between NT$50,000 (US$1,604) and NT$5 million if they belong to the private sector.
As for the victims, they are entitled to request for reinstatement, restoration of their rights and compensations, the bill stipulates.
In situations where reinstatement is difficult, the employer may terminate the employment contract after paying the whistleblower a severance fee, pension payments and at least three months' salary in compensation, it adds.
In an effort to ensure thorough protection in more serious cases, whistleblowers who fit the criteria set forth in the Witness Protection Act would also see their spouse, direct family members, relatives, or those with whom they have a "close relationship" protected under the draft act.
In addition, the draft act provides whistleblowers exemption from legal liability for disclosing classified information concerning the state or the business.
If the whistleblower is also responsible for the unlawful act in question, or serves as an accomplice, but meets the requirements of the Witness Protection Act, he or she may face only a reduced sentence or be exempted from punishment, the bill states.
"The purpose of the draft act is to bring Taiwan in sync with the international community and in line with the spirits set forth in the United Nations Convention against Corruption," the Agency Against Corruption's Director-General Cheng Ming-chien told a press conference in Taipei after a weekly Cabinet meeting.
It is also the government's hope to create a safer environment for whistleblowers and build a society with zero tolerance toward corruption, Cheng said.
Source: Focus Taiwan News Channel