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Protecting Whistleblowers since 1977

Will FIFA Kick the Can Down the Pitch on Whistleblower Protections?

Bea Edwards, January 29, 2016

Next month, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) will hold an election for its top position. The off-year ballot is scheduled because the currently-suspended FIFA President, Joseph "Sepp" Blatter, faces serious allegations of racketeering, conspiracy, money laundering, corruption, mismanagement and fraud. He is not alone in this. The US and Swiss governments together have charged 30 FIFA-associated officials with crimes.

The candidates to succeed Blatter as FIFA President are numerous, but prominent among them is Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein, brother of King Abdullah II of Jordan. The King extols his brother’s “…diligence in assuming duties and responsibilities with utmost honesty and competence…” as well as his “commitment, hard work and dedication to improve the sport of football.” Given Blatter and his associates’ conduct over the past decade, the sport is in need of certain improvements.

As part of his campaign, Prince Ali is pledging to reform FIFA, and he sets out his plans in a manifesto, parts of which focus on transparency, accountability and ethics. The manifesto also mentions good governance and compliance throughout.

The manifesto makes no mention, however, of whistleblower protection, though, in light of what has happened at FIFA since 2010, it is clearly needed.

Phaedra Almajid, a former member of Qatar’s World Cup media team, disclosed in 2010 that Qatari officials attempted to bribe FIFA representatives to secure votes for the nation’s 2022 World Cup bid. Within a year of the disclosure, Almajid recanted, but when contacted by the US Justice Department (DOJ), she told investigators her retraction was coerced. She produced a recording that backed her claim. Together with another whistle-blower – Australian Bonita Mersiades – she gave evidence to Michael Garcia, an American attorney heading the FIFA internal ethics committee investigation, substantiating her original claims and revealing the evidence she had earlier provided to the US DOJ. Garcia guaranteed both Almajid and Mersiades anonymity in exchange for their testimony.

After a two-year process, however, FIFA ethics committee judge Hans Joachim Eckert released a summary of the Garcia report. Eckert’s summary cleared Qatar of wrongdoing and allowed the country to remain as the venue for the 2022 World Cup. At the same time, the Eckert summary provided enough specific detail about the whistleblowers for a knowledgeable reader to identify them readily. In response, Garcia resigned, saying a lack of leadership at FIFA motivated him to make his decision. For her part, Almajid remarked of corruption at FIFA: “Not even an extensive, purportedly independent, two year investigation and report could affect its culture.”

Given this sequence of events, the silence on whistleblower protection in Ali’s FIFA reform manifesto is unsettling. Prince Ali’s neglect of this topic, however, may be a product of his own culture. He is a member of Jordan’s royal family, and Jordan does not have strong whistleblower protection law. Claims of corruption, as well as whistleblower retaliation are handled through the Jordan Anti-Corruption Commission, which operates under the jurisdiction of the Prime Minister. Independence from government influence, therefore, in whistleblower investigations does not exist in Jordan. Moreover, the country’s laws permit the government itself to retaliate: claims of corruption that are proved false may result in the punishment of the whistleblower who made them. 

So, the investigation of a whistleblower’s disclosure is in the hands of Jordan’s ruling party. If the party decides the disclosure cannot be substantiated, the government of Jordan may legally ‘punish’ the whistleblower. In light of this process and the lack of accountability for those who control it, a potential whistleblower would be foolhardy to come forward.

Moreover, the process is clearly non-compliant with best-practice whistleblower protection, which stipulates that those who report allegations of wrongdoing in good faith shall be afforded protection, whether their disclosures are substantiated or not.

If elected, Prince Ali should have a plan for protecting whistleblowers at FIFA. If, however, he models his approach on the legal regime he knows best, we can expect little in the way of protection from retaliation for those who make disclosures of wrongdoing there.

Standing up for a whistleblower can pose a serious moral dilemma, even for powerful officials, especially when the disclosure is embarrassing to the institution involved and/or exposes senior staff members and colleagues to investigation. After interviewing Prince Ali, Roger Pielke, an expert on sports governance, could not say much to dispel concern about his commitment to reform. Pielke told the Financial Times: Ali is “…unnecessarily vague about reforms.” According to Pielke, Ali said “…reform of FIFA was easy — you just need the right people in place. He was very short on details of what the ‘right people’ would do or the mechanics of getting the right people into place.”

In this situation, the right people would be those committed to protecting FIFA whistleblowers.  At an organization with the generous financial resources, deep institutional complexity and secrecy of FIFA, the best information about corruption and illegality will be provided – at least initially – by whistleblowers. If they can be targeted because an ethics committee fails to protect them, they will not be able to come forward safely. The fact that Prince Ali provides no specifics about his accountability program and fails to mention the role of whistleblowers in promoting integrity, should he be elected to head FIFA, is cause for concern about his candidacy.