There is hardly a country where Edward Snowden, probably the best-known whistleblower of our time, is more highly-regarded than in Germany. This is ironic considering how disinterested Germans usually are towards whistleblowing in their own country, and how little legal protection Germany offers to whistleblowers.
Germans are used to being monitored by dictatorships: its infamous secret services, such as the Stasi or Gestapo, routinely collected information to use as a tool of repression. That may be why solidarity with Snowden has come so naturally. In German minds, whoever fights to keep their intimate lives free from outside interference, must be good.
However, this attitude does not extend to most German whistleblowers. When a member of an inner circle, be it a family or a work place, reveals private information to an outside institution, many Germans are reminded of a history they would rather forget.
The same culture that values privacy so highly also puts a lot of emphasis on loyalty and oaths of secrecy in the work place.
A new phenomenon in Germany
Whistleblowers who claim to operate in the public interest — and are therefore hailed as public heroes — are a relatively new phenomenon in Germany. The Federation of German Scientists, which introduced a biannual whistleblower prize back in 1999, has only given half of its awards to fellow countrymen.
“We would like to award more Germans, but the problem is that nobody knows them,” said Guido Strack, President of Whistleblower Netzwerk Deutschland and one of the initiators of the prize. Strack cited the example of Brigitte Heinisch, a German nurse who won the prize in 2007 after being fired for exposing the poor conditions in an old people’s home in Berlin where she worked. Heinisch made legal history, but ask an average German on the street if they know who she is, and they will go blank.
Whistleblowing laws not as strong in Germany as in the US
In the United States employees are actively motivated by law to blow the whistle on all sorts of misconduct, be it fraud, mismanagement, waste of public funds or abuse of authority. However, German law actually forbids public servants to declare a criminal act against their superiors. It was only after the German government signed an international agreement on fighting corruption in 1999 that a small exception was made.
As those who advocate protection for whistleblowers emphasise however, this lack of transparency stems from the fact that Germany is still a young democracy. A federal Freedom of Information Act, for example, common in many older democracies, has only existed in Germany since 2006. Still, four German states, among them Bayern, the richest region, refuse to be transparent when it comes to government decision-making.
Is the US a role model for whistleblower protection?
The irony is that German labour law incorporates strong protection against dismissal, but it does not seem to be able to effectively protect whistleblowers, according to Dieter Deiseroth, German judge and whistleblower-expert. “In the United States it seems to work the other way around, where people can be fired at anytime, except when it comes to whistleblowing,” he added.
It must surprise many Germans to learn that the US is considered a role model. The US has put so much effort into hunting Edward Snowden, the man who has won the hearts and minds of the Germans so overwhelmingly, and has already sentenced Chelsea Manning, another notorious whistleblower, to 35 years in jail.
It is, however, the same country where whistleblowers have been making history for decades, from the famous ‘Deep Throat’, who helped The Washington Post reveal Watergate, to the employees who informed investigators about massive accounting schemes and fraud at Enron and Worldcom. Scandals like these led to even more forceful whisteblowing protection, with employers now risking jail if they fire an employee for revealing fraud.
Deiseroth, who researched the topic in the US, came to the conclusion that it is not just law that makes the difference here. “It is also a culture of individualism that makes American citizens more willing to stand up,” he said.
In the light of the above, it is questionable whether Edward Snowden, had he been a German working in a German environment, would have become a public figure at all.
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