Moves are afoot to protect the rights of whistle-blowers.

Consumer and lawyer groups are calling for laws similar to those in the United State and Britain that prevent people who report wrongdoing at their companies for the sake of public interest from being fired or penalized by their employers.

A Cabinet Office advisory panel is debating a whistler-blower immunity bill and may compile a report by April, a spokesman said.

The nation’s oft-reinforced emphasis on social harmony has long relegated the notion of whistle-blowing in Japan to traitor status.

But this negative view has changed in recent years due to a spate of corporate misdeeds, including fraudulent mislabeling of beef products by Nippon Meat Packers Inc. and the now-defunct Snow Brand Foods Co., and damage coverups at Tokyo Electric Power Co. nuclear plants.

Revelations of illicit behavior at major companies at the expense of public safety have changed the way people view whistle-blowers, said Kazuko Miyamoto, head of the Nippon Association of Consumer Specialists, a research institute.

“Consumers have been buying products because they believed that what the labels said were true,” Miyamoto said. “But with the lies being revealed, people realized they were in a weak position and that they needed to protect those who report on the internal affairs (of companies).”

Experts point out that interest in protecting whistle-blowers has also grown as the population ages and people become more sensitive toward incidents that pose risks to their everyday lives.

They also note that workers feel less loyal to their firms because the once solid lifetime employment system has collapsed as many companies aggressively restructure.

Experts say recent corporate scandals have driven home the message to companies that illegal acts and measures to cover them up will undermine their credibility, and management will suffer.

Some companies have recently set up in-house contact venues for whistle-blowing, creating sections in departments, including personnel affairs divisions, to contain such reporting.

The move reflects the growing recognition that it is better to have employees discover and report illegal behavior internally than suffer a full-blown public scandal.

The majority of such companies contain the whistle-blower reports within the specified internal contact venue, and forbid them to be made to outside groups.

The Cabinet Office is thinking of having whistle-blowers go no further than reporting to government agencies.

Consumer and lawyer groups say, however, whistle-blowers should be allowed to report to a wide range of outside parties.

They argue that in the U.S. and Europe, whistle-blowers are free to report to any party, and even when there are restrictions, reports to the media are allowed as long as certain conditions are met.

Yukiko Miki, executive director of Information Clearing House Japan, a nonprofit organization that seeks to promote public disclosure of information, said whistle-blowers must be allowed to report to the media.

“We firmly believe that for the public interest, it’s not enough to have a person make a report within an organization or only to the government,” Miki said. “We need reports to the media in order to have the information disseminated.”

Opinion is divided on the scope of the envisaged whistle-blower immunity law.

The Cabinet Office is considering having the law just protect whistle-blowers reporting on private companies.

Some consumer groups, however, are seeking protection for those reporting on unjust acts in not only the private but public sectors, including illegal donations to politicians, and illicit spending by public authorities.

But Miyamoto said the law is not an end in itself and the big picture involves creating “a society where justice and transparency prevail.”

Nevertheless, legislation will be a key first step in giving much needed protection to whistle-blowers, Miki said.

She said that although surveys show a majority of the public favors protecting whistle-blowers, discrimination against them persists.

“While there’s been a clear change in sentiment in the past year, what happens in reality has not changed that much,” Miki said.

“Whistle-blowers continue to be harassed,” she said. “They may not necessarily be fired, but they are encouraged to quit or given no raises for years. We definitely need to put an end to that.”

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