How the public learned about an abuse of several million euros

The Culture & Mass Media Federation FAIR-MediaSind (Federația Cultură și Mass Media FAIR-MediaSind) is the first Romanian organisation to benefit from the free testing of the whistleblowing platform GlobaLeaks, as part of the Expanding Anonymous Tipping project. The project is financed by the European Commission and is implemented in 10 member states, the Romanian partner being the Center for Independent Journalism.  

The FAIR-MediaSind whistleblowing channel went online on October 5th 2020, configured on the GlobaLeaks platform. Its over 8,000 members now have a new mechanism to flag, anonymously, any irregularity or illegality from the cultural and media sectors in Romania.   


Cristi Godinac, the executive president of the Federation describes the experience of using the platform and how it helps them to better represent the interests of their members.

Did you have, in your organisation, an established channel or set of procedures for whistleblowers before using the GlobaLeaks platform?

A: Until we configured the FAIR-MediaSind (GlobaLeaks) platform, we had no dedicated digital instrument for this in our organisation. As a union, we are by definition a whistleblowing organisation, and we did get such alerts, but we did not have a proper channel for them. The members used to notify us through their union leaders or via e-mail or phone. They could also alert us in this way about irregularities from inside the union, that the union leader from TVR, for example, made a deal with the employer, or that another leader got the job to specifically disrespect the union requirements.

We had something similar, a few years ago, an ombudsman service, together with the national press agency Agerpres, which included procedures for petitions and freedom of information inquiries, based on the law no. 544/2011. But we now have GlobaLeaks, which we use both ways. This channel allows us to get alerts from both the outside and the inside of our organisation.  

Until GlobaLeaks, were the alerts anonymous or signed?

A: Most of them were signed, coming from people that „just had enough” and could not tolerate the situation any longer, so they decided to alert us. Usually, this meant grabbing a phone and calling us directly. 

What made you choose a digital channel specially designed for whistleblowers?

A: We wanted to also give this possibility of alerting us of wrongdoings, to people who, for various reasons, want to do it anonymously. Our field of work motivated us to choose a digital solution for whistleblowing. Our mission is to protect our members, no matter if they work in a public or a private media institution. And we also saw that there is a bigger fear of speaking out in the private sector, because they don’t have strong unions and employers can terminate them more easily. Especially for this kind of cases, but not only, we needed an instrument for anonymous alerts.      


AN EASIER AND SAFER WAY TO DENOUNCE ABUSES

We had cases inside powerful media organisations, in which employees signaled us various illegalities. The last case was in the period of the state of emergency, when the employees of a media institution alerted us that, even though they were officially furloughed, they were still urged to come to work and do the same work, based on volunteering contracts. These employees emailed us copies of those contracts and photos from their offices. It was a widespread practice, acknowledged even by the Labour Minister, of employers guilty of fiscal evasion, by calling their employees to work when, on paper, they were furloughed. We went public then and demanded the owner of that specific organization to end such practices. We notified the competent authorities and the Labour Inspectorate, which made control visits, investigated these wrongdoings and applied sanctions. After our public appeal, more employees of that media institution came forward to us and confirmed those contracts. But, in that case, the whistleblowers did not want to reveal their identity, as they would have been fired immediately. It would have been easier if we were to have this platform, GlobaLeaks, active then. More of them could have used it to file anonymous complaints.  

Things are somehow easier in the public media institutions and we see a greater courage to report wrongdoings, because we still have powerful union leaders there. With strong organisations, we could sign collective work agreements that offer better protection for whistleblowers. We have union reps in the ethics and discipline commissions in public media organisations, so it’s harder for their leaders to abuse their position. And if a whistleblower were to be fired in retaliation, we could even file an official complaint for abuse of office.    

The national television, TVR, had several provisions, which MediaSind attacked in court, that forbid its employees to publicly criticize the management, as “grave misconduct”. Now it’s classified only as a “misconduct”. They introduced such illegal provisions in order to discourage employees to signal the abuses from inside the institution.    


How are whistleblowers regarded in your organization?

A: Our mission is to signal and fight against abuses, so whistleblowers have a hero status in our organisation. But I also know that this is an exception in Romanian institutions.

What do you think the general perception is in Romania regarding whistleblowers and why? 

A: Unfortunately, the general perception of this courageous act of signaling wrongdoings is a negative one. They are seen as ‘snitches’, as people who go against the system and the ‘order’. The leaders have an antiquated mentality, and don’t understand that the rule of law should be among their priorities. So whistleblowers face a lot of attacks.   

I’ve noticed that in the big media institutions, both public and private one, there are no such platforms or procedures for whistleblowers. Neither the Romanian Television Institution, nor the Romanian Radio, have such platforms or measures for protecting whistleblowers. On the contrary, the management’s mentality in these institutions is to reject any attempt to signal wrongdoings. Because of this, we face serious problems in defending our colleagues, which signal us wrongdoings, because they are ‘hunted’.   

From the perspective of the employers, it’s clear they don’t need whistleblowers to show them the emperor has no clothes.

But from employees, and the colleagues of our whistleblowers, we either get messages or appreciation or we see a lack of solidarity and attempts to isolate the whistleblowers.


DANGERS FACED BY WHISTLEBLOWERS

I can clearly recall three such cases, one in Târgu Mureș, one at Adevărul and one at Evenimentul Zilei newspapers. In one of them, a journalist had the courage to invoke the ‘conscience clause’ which used to be included then in the work contracts for the mass-media sector. He was subsequently discriminated against in the newsroom, isolated, both figuratively and physically, because his desk was literally moved to a dark corner, in order to make him quit.

Our colleague from Târgu Mureș was fired four times from one institution because she kept reporting wrongdoings – and she won four times in court. She revealed serious illegalities in the labour contracts of the employees. Despite this, her colleagues accepted the abuse and showed a lack of solidarity for the whistleblower, isolating her, even though they could have benefited from their actions.    

Especially in the private sector, there is a very disadvantageous mentality of “the owner has the money and the power to fire us and do all he wants”. For me, another ineffective mentality is to say “I saw a wrongdoing, so I quit”, which doesn’t solve anything and does not change the behaviour of the owner or the manager. You leave for another job, where you could encounter the same abuses. 

More so, the right to act as a whistleblower is little known, because there is no interest in promoting it. Talking about this right in the media organisations feels like whistling in church. 


GLOBALEAKS IS SAFER FOR WHISTLEBLOWERS

Which of its features would convince you to use it as an internal channel for whistleblowers?

A: The enhanced level of protection offered to whistleblowers by this digital solution. We received important documents, with very sensitive contents, and those cases were clear situations where, if the identities of the whistleblowers were to be revealed, they would have been fired. We wanted to offer the members of our organisation this channel with a heightened level of safety, in order to protect the people that want to speak up, making it impossible to identify them if they wish to remain anonymous. We have to insist and remind our beneficiaries that their IP cannot be tracked, so they don’t have to invest time and energy in finding specific devices or apps that ensure the necessary safety requirements. Even us, the administrators of this system, have access only to the data that the whistleblower sends us.           

How was the setup process for your GlobaLeaks platform and its use procedures? 

A: The setup process itself only took a few minutes. More so, you don’t have to be trained in IT to use it, at both ends, as an administrator and a whistleblower.

The platform is very user-friendly. No matter where we are, when a new complaint is registered in the system, we’re notified through a special e-mail address that we set up especially for this platform, so we see the alerts in real time. The e-mail address is highly secured, because of several measures we took in the past regarding this aspect, after a cyber attack.

We assigned several people that have access to the complaints we receive through the platform, so there’s no risk for a monopolized control, by a single administrator, of the decisions regarding how we process the alerts. And we each have our specific domain, like the culture or the media sector.   

What was your experience until now of using GlobaLeaks?

A: It’s a very useful platform for people who do not want to reveal their identity. It’s not something that’s specific to union work, meaning that, usually, people that want to join a union will do it publicly. But reality showed us the utility of the FAIR-MediaSind platform. Since we launched it in October, we had several whistleblowers which used it to send us various types of data. This was the big win: an alternative for people who want to hide their identity in order to protect themselves from reprisals.    

I can say that the GlobaLeaks platform proved to be an important instrument for our organisation. If we did not have it, we may not have received certain documents sent by whistleblowers who did not want to identify themselves.

Another important aspect is that we can communicate with the whistleblower via the instant messaging system integrated in the platform. We used it to reply to every one of the people that alerted us of wrongdoings. We sent them feedback, links to the articles we published, registration numbers for complaints we filed to specific institutions and so on. It allows us to keep in touch with them and even exchange documents, when necessary.


Cristi Godinac’s message for those who are reluctant to install a whistleblowing platform in their organisation

Such solutions are beneficial for the democratic wellbeing of your institution. It makes it easier for you, as an employer, to know the problems and vulnerable spots in your organisation and not wake up in the middle of a complicated and unsolvable crisis, when “you’re going to wash your clothes in public”, so everything goes public and the legal institutions get involved. It’s better to know, prevent and be aware of the mentality in your organisation, of the fear of your employees to alert you of wrongdoings. For this, you need to help them to inform you. Let them signal the problems in your organisation. These instruments give you the possibility to fix or reduce internal conflicts or wrongdoings, with a lot of benefits for you, as an employer.    


Cases where the GlobaLeaks platform was used by whistleblowers

  • In TVR Cluj, employees were forced by the Bucharest based management to broadcast the Junior Fitness and Bodybuilding World Championship, although there was a negative notification from the public health authorities, because of the Covid pandemic, when the rate of new cases was too high. The notification was known by the TVR management. We received it through the GlobaLeaks FAIR-MediaSind platform.
  • On December 9th, we were notified by the General Prosecutor’s Office that the anti-corruption authority, DNA, started an investigation regarding a report by the Minister for Public Finances after a control visit in TVR. It included serious acts of corruption, with damages worth several million euros, in the contracts for the broadcast of certain sport competitions. The inspectors found that the TVR management used fake documents and paid large sums of money from public funds, as tranches of several contracts, with no legal or contractual basis, and even without proper signatures from the financial departments. The result of this control visit made by inspectors from the Minister for Public Finances was sent to us via the GlobaLeaks platform. We published it (after anonymizing all the personal data) and we alerted the competent authorities. We also sent it to the Administration Council in TVR, which was not aware of it and they then acted on it.