Denmark betrayed its long-held reputation as being one of the world’s least-corrupt countries when its top court ruled against a bona fide whistleblower. Now, lawmakers are trying to get the country back on the right track.
Parliament Member Karina Lorentzen Dehnhardt has formally requested the Justice Ministry to explain why Denmark’s new whistleblower law failed to protect Bitten Vivi Jensen from retaliation and prosecution. The Danish Supreme Court in January upheld the criminal conviction of Jensen, a city employee who revealed that needy citizens were being denied their welfare payments.
The European Center for Whistleblower Rights brought the controversial ruling to the attention of Parliament. Dehnhardt responded in April by sending an official letter to Justice Minister Nick Hækkerup about the need to protect the “freedom of expression of civil servants.”
“Karina will continue her work for [whistleblower] rights and protection,” a spokesperson for Dehnhardt told WNN. “Whistleblower protection is a very important issue for [us] and we take it very seriously. We want a whistleblower protection law which prevents crimes and misconduct in public administration.”
Dehnhardt is in a good position to achieve results. She is member of the Socialist People’s Party, one of six political parties in the “red bloc” that formally supports the government of Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen. The Social Democrat leader, the youngest prime minister in Danish history, is a former trade union worker and Employment Minister who hails from a working-class family.
Jensen’s plight has received widespread attention in a country where whistleblower retaliation cases are few and far between. While working in the rehabilitation department in the Frederiksberg municipality of Copenhagen, she learned that officials were trying to save money by withholding welfare payments. After managers ignored her concerns and fired her in 2016, she told her story to prominent journalist Ulrik Dahlin of the newspaper Information.
Instead of being thanked for her public service on behalf of vulnerable people, Jensen was charged and convicted of violating confidentiality rules. She was fined 5,000 Danish kroner (about $770 USD) and given a suspended sentence of 10 days in jail.
Represented by labor rights attorney Mads Pramming, Jensen took her case to the Supreme Court and put Denmark’s new whistleblower law to the test. It failed. Judges upheld the criminal conviction, stating “it was not necessary” for Jensen to give personal information on the victimized citizens to Dahlin – even though the journalist did not publish any of their names.
By interjecting a vague and subjective “necessity” test, the ruling may give pause to witnesses who are aware of crime and corruption but are reluctant to report it out of fear they will not be protected from reprisals. This could allow criminals to evade prosecution. The precedent also could harm future victimized whistleblowers who seek remedies in court.
The ruling stands in contrast to Denmark’s well-known stature as an anti-corruption leader. It has held the #1 ranking atop Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index for the past four years, from 2018-21. It has not ranked below second place since 2006. However, when it released the latest rankings in January, Transparency International cautioned that “top-scoring countries’ complacency has been detrimental not only to global anti-corruption efforts but also to their own affairs.”