GUE/NGL
GUE/NGL Award for ‘Journalists, Whistleblowers and Defenders of the Right to Information' prize nominees

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The shortlist for the second annual GUE/NGL Award for ‘Journalists, Whistleblowers and Defenders of the Right to Information’ has been unveiled.

Dedicated to individuals or groups who have been intimidated and/or persecuted for uncovering the truth and exposing it to the public, this year’s award is once again named in honour of the late Maltese journalist, Daphne Caruana Galizia. You can find out more about all six nominees and the sacrifices they have made by clicking on their names.

The prize will be awarded on 16th April at the European Parliament in Strasboug.

Julian Assange

As the publisher of a media outlet reporting on whistleblower disclosures WikiLeaks, Julian Assange has produced significant journalism that brings new information to the public and enables rights to be defended in the EU and beyond. By pioneering the technological facilitation of anonymous disclosure and demonstrating the full potential of this mechanism with a series of high-profile releases, Assange has made important contributions to the cause of public access to information.

WikiLeaks has faced down a number of threats over the 13 years of its existence, but the risk of persecution for Assange personally has increased significantly in the past year. Press freedom advocates and human rights defenders are justifiably concerned by the prospect of a criminal prosecution of Assange in the United States for publishing classified information. Such would mark a reversal of the precedent set in the Pentagon Papers case of 1971 and present a host of new dangers for investigative journalists wherever they operate.

At this time, recognising Julian Assange as a nominee of this award is an act of solidarity with the freedom to publish and an expression of our concern about the threats he faces as a publisher, editor and journalist.

In April 2018, the Democratic National Congress (DNC) alleged that Assange and WikiLeaks were part of a conspiracy to hack the DNC in 2016 merely by communicating with their source and publishing the hacked documents that were disclosed. The suit also argues for the protection of corporate emails as trade secrets. Civil liberties advocates in the United States intervening in the case argue that it has weighty implications for First Amendment rights and investigative reporting.

Late last year, media reports suggested US prosecutors had prepared a criminal complaint against Assange for his publishing activities. In recent months, witnesses have been subpoenaed before a grand jury in Virginia in order to answer questions about WikiLeaks activities in 2010-12, suggesting that US prosecutors are preparing to bring a formal indictment that takes in WikiLeaks publishing activities during the period. Whistleblower Chelsea Manning, who spent seven years in prison after being prosecuted for disclosing documents, has recently been remanded back into custody until she agrees to testify to the grand jury. 

Assange had been seeking refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London since 2012 to avoid being extradited by the British authorities. In 2015, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention ruled that Assange was being arbitrarily detained and had called on the UK to respect his right to freedom of movement.

However, on 11th April 2019, upon Ecuadorian government’s withdrawal of asylum, British police arrested Assange at the embassy and was found guilty of failing to surrender to the court. He could now be extradited to the US on conspiracy charges related to the leaks of government secrets.

Rui Pinto

Rui Pinto, the force behind the Football Leaks website, has made a major contribution to the cause of public access to information. Established in September 2015, the website has provided the impetus for a major international reporting effort into systematic financial wrongdoing within the world of professional football. The disclosures have led to a number of prosecutions and disciplinary proceedings against some of the most famous names in the sport.

Pinto was recently extradited from Hungary back to his native Portugal on charges of extortion, violation of secrecy and the unlawful acquisition of information – that is, computer hacking. Whilst under house arrest in Budapest, Pinto told journalists of his fears over extra-legal retribution in Portugal and does not feel that he would be safe in a Portuguese prison.

Football Leaks started in 2015 with the publication of player contracts that showed how powerful agents manipulated player transfers and circumvented financial rules, to significant financial benefit. As a result of these initial disclosures, Dutch team DC Twente Enschede was banned from competing internationally for three seasons.

Pinto later shared eight portable hard drives full of information with Der Spiegel, who in turn brought in the European Investigative Collaborations consortium (ECI) along with 11 media organisations from across the EU. In all, nearly 60 journalists worked on the Football Leaks project and they produced a long sequence of investigative reporting.

Football Leaks reporting has led to a series of prosecutions for tax evasion in Spain. Those prosecuted for their use of tax havens include some of the most well-known players in the game such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. The European Parliament credited Football Leaks for prompting its own investigation in 2017.

Pinto’s lawyers say that he has been working with French financial crime investigators since 2016 and is in discussion with the Swiss and German tax authorities. They argue that this cooperation has been jeopardised by the ongoing extradition proceedings, which have seen Portuguese authorities seize all of Pinto’s electronic devices.

In a recent interview, Pinto told reporters, “I don’t consider myself a hacker, but as a citizen who acted in the public interest.” Portugal as a jurisdiction serves its whistleblowers poorly. A recent survey of whistleblower laws in the EU compared nine international standards and found that Portugal performed especially poorly with a score of 11%. This is much lower than the European average. Further, the position of those who have been accused of releasing public interest information acquired from computer networks is at the frontier of whistleblower laws with insufficient protection even under new standards like the EU’s proposed Whistleblower directive. 

Yasmine Motarjemi

Yasmine Motarjemi is an authoritative voice on food safety and the integrity of production chains. Educated in France, she holds a doctorate in Food Engineering from the University of Lund in Sweden and is Editor-in-Chief of the Encyclopaedia on Food Safety.

Motarjemi worked for the World Health Organisation for a decade on the prevention of foodborne illnesses before joining Nestlé – the world’s biggest food producer – as its corporate food safety manager in 2000. After a decade in that job, Motarjemi blew the whistle on a series of ignored warnings and a corporate culture in which speaking out was strongly discouraged. She left the company in 2010 and in 2015, she started proceedings against Nestlé in Switzerland for unfair dismissal. Nestlé counter-sued, alleging that Motarjemi had breached confidentiality provisions in her contract. Rulings in both cases are still pending.

Warnings that Motarjemi says were ignored include the absence of adequate processes for validating nutrient content of infant formula – something that Nestlé only started paying attention to after problems with a rival company’s formula resulted in infant deaths. She has described being alerted to choking incidents in 8-month-old babies, precipitated by biscuits produced by the company. It was over two years before action was taken, when better labelling might have resolved the situation more quickly.

In 2009, 77 people in the US became ill with E Coli after eating Nestlé cookie dough raw. Motarjemi said how, despite this issue having been reported in the scientific literature, nothing had been done to avert this risk until it was too late.

Motarjemi has described a prevalent culture of harassment and intimidation at Nestlé, which meant that – although their policies looked good on paper – in practice, few were willing to come forward with their concerns. In practice, by raising the alarm, Motarjemi found herself singled out for humiliation and systematic belittling at work. She has described how her conference presentations were assigned to others at short notice and she was given tasks she did not feel it was possible to complete.

Switzerland is often cited as a country where corporate interests speak particularly loudly. A proposal for a new whistleblower law has been criticised for offering whistleblowers insufficient protection from retaliation and not allowing them protection if they need to speak to journalists in order to bring their concerns to the fore. Yasmine Motarjemi’s case shows just how important that access is: as she has remarked, without media attention it can be extremely difficult to persuade large multinational companies to change course. 

Katya Mateva

As former head of Bulgaria’s Citizenship Directorate at its Ministry of Justice, Katya Mateva fearlessly raised the alarm about systematic corruption that tainted the highest level of government. Her determination to restore the integrity of Bulgaria’s naturalisation procedures reveals a commitment to uphold the rule of law and the broader, European public interest – regardless of the personal risks in doing so.

In the course of her job as a senior civil servant with the responsibility for granting citizenship applications, Mateva noticed that procedures were being systematically abused. After a number of attempts to remedy the situation, she was fired in 2016 for refusing to approve citizenship applications that she understood had been made on the basis of fake credentials.

Bulgaria allows individuals holding “certificates of belonging to the Bulgarian nation” to apply for citizenship and obtain access to the rest of the EU. These certificates are issued with few, if any checks: Mateva describes cancelling around 60 naturalisations after finding that they had been granted to known criminals.

Mateva revealed that the practice of obtaining certificates for cash is widespread and blatant with around 5000 people per year paying up to 7000 euros to acquire the credentials. She has described money changing hands openly on the streets outside government buildings.

Mateva made a number of attempts to report her concerns to Bulgarian authorities and political figures but without success. As a result, she received threatening phone calls and emails and was told that her husband’s job at the Ministry of Justice was also at risk. Documents Mateva has subsequently released to the media indicate that senior members of Bulgaria’s governing coalition were themselves aware of the scam.

Bulgaria is also one of several EU countries that has been criticised for its ‘golden passports’ scheme, which allows individuals from third countries who make significant investments to acquire residency or citizenship. The European Commission has found that those administering such schemes often do not carry out adequate due diligence on would-be investors and the source of their funds.

Belatedly, action has been taken as a consequence of Mateva’s disclosures and broader international concern. In October 2018, Bulgarian police arrested Petar Haralampiev, the head of the government agency responsible for issuing the certificates. He and three other officials – including one who was found with 285,000 euros in cash in a safe-deposit box – are currently in custody facing charges of involvement in organised crime. A committee of inquiry has been set up by Bulgaria’s National Assembly to look into the affair. 

Luis Gonzalo Segura

Luis Gonzalo Segura was a career officer in the Spanish military. His case has become a cause célèbre in Spain, bringing the country’s lack of legal protections for whistleblowers to the fore, as much as it has the culture of the armed forces.

Segura enlisted in 2002. Over the course of his service, he was disturbed by the systematic corruption he witnessed and started keeping records of his concerns. Segura has described nepotism, waste and fraud involving significant amounts of money. Notably, he alleged that 60,000 euros being paid monthly to update software that was not even installed on military computers.

From the outset, Segura had faced hostility for asking questions. He was warned early on by a supervisor that his whistleblowing might leave him open to retaliation and possible danger. The subject of Segura’s disclosures makes him a controversial figure in Spain and he has described receiving ‘very many’ threatening emails after his case became public.

After making several internal reports about the wrongdoing he had witnessed, Segura attempted to raise his findings in a military court in 2011. His allegations were dismissed the following year without any investigation being conducted or statement taken. Despite this lack of investigation, at no point did anyone in authority ever dispute the allegations that Segura brought forward.

Frustrated by the lack of response from the channels open to him and still determined to raise the alarm what he had seen, Segura wrote a book, Un Paso al Frente (A Step Forward), on the subject. Upon publication in 2014, Segura was immediately charged with “indiscipline” and put in military custody. Eventually he was expelled from the army with a dishonourable discharge.

Segura spent a total of five months in preventative detention in a military jail as a result of his whistleblowing. Some of the period was spent in repressive conditions including solitary confinement. He was only released after staging a 22-day hunger strike.

In addition to the disciplinary suit that put him in prison, Segura has faced civil actions from senior government and military figures, all of which were dismissed the moment they arrived to court. He is currently challenging the offences used to justify his discharge, a complex process that involves litigation on the European level. His situation has been made more difficult by the lack of national whistleblower protection provisions in Spain – much less any that would protect military personnel.

Luis Gonzalo Segura’s disclosures have sparked a nationwide debate about corruption and the culture of Spain’s military. Spain is one of several countries in the EU to score zero in a recent survey of compliance with international standards of whistleblower protection. It has also been debating a draft law in the wake of Segura’s disclosures. In this, too, his contribution has been critical

Howard Wilkinson

Howard Wilkinson, the former head of markets for Danske Bank in Estonia, blew the whistle on some of the largest financial irregularities ever recorded. An estimated 200 billion euros were laundered through Danske’s Estonian branch over a nine-year period – an amount that equates to Estonia’s entire GDP over the same time frame.

Danske Bank acquired its Estonian subsidiary in 2007. The company was never integrated into the main Danske Bank IT systems and nearly half of the accounts serviced by the branch belonged to non-resident partnerships. The activities at the Estonian branch were marked by a lack of due diligence as to who its customers were and the failure to end relationships with parties which have been publicly associated with crime and money laundering.

In summer 2013, JP Morgan stopped handling dollar transactions for Danske’s Estonian branch, citing concerns about non-resident accounts. Wilkinson came forward on 27 December that year to express his concerns that the bank was knowingly dealing with laundered funds. Over a series of emails, Wilkinson drew attention to problematic client accounts. In fact, Danske’s client records clearly contradicted records held by Companies House in the UK that said several entities was dormant, a circumstance Wilkinson described as “a near total process failure”.

Wilkinson left Danske Bank in April 2014 after signing a restrictive non-disclosure agreement that prohibited him from speaking to law enforcement. Shortly before leaving the company, he wrote a final email detailing his dissatisfaction with an internal audit conducted in January that year that had not resulted in any client accounts being closed down.

It wasn’t until the end of 2015 before Danske Bank finally closed the non-resident unit at its Estonian branch. The matter was largely unknown to the public until 2017, when a series of stories in Denmark’s Berlingske newspaper resulted in an internal report being commissioned. This was published in September 2017. Danske Bank’s CEO Thomas Borgen stepped down shortly afterwards and Howard Wilkinson’s name was revealed by an Estonian newspaper without his permission.

The amounts involved make this the biggest money laundering case ever recorded, though there remains many unknowns about the ultimate sources of the funds involved. At its peak in 2013, Danske Bank’s Estonian branch had a market share of only around 9% of non-resident accounts in the Baltic states.

As a result of Wilkinson’s disclosures, investigations have been initiated in six different countries, with at least ten banks involved. Nevertheless, it is clear that without external involvement, and latterly the media interest, Danske Bank may never have commissioned the detailed inquiry that enabled these wider investigations. Not only does Howard Wilkinson’s case demonstrate the continuing importance of whistleblowing in the banking sector, it shows that restrictive non-disclosure agreements like the one he was obliged to sign are contrary to the public interest.