In Romania, a play shows pain and risk of whistleblowers

SIBIU, ROMANIA, Anca Teodorescu- Their story unfolds against a pale grey backdrop, evoking a labyrinth inhabited by heartless and faceless bureaucrats.
Surreal the decor may be, but the words are rooted in reality. They recount what it's like to be a whistleblower -- a life freighted with fear and risk, especially in Romania, where graft is endemic.

The new play -- "Common People" -- is the brainchild of Gianina Carbunariu, one of the brightest stars in Romanian theatre today.
Most whistleblowers, Carbunariu points out, are not global figures like Edward Snowden or Julian Assange.
Instead, they are people like you and me, who at some point in their lives see something that is terribly wrong and decide to intervene.
"They are not Superman or Batman, but citizens who find themselves in a situation where they could not act differently because of their moral values," says Carbunariu.
"Common People" is based on interviews Carbunariu conducted with eight whistleblowers -- three Romanians, three Britons and two Italians.
"I stood up and I fought. All of you are the victims because it's your money that is being stolen," says Alin Goga, who was temporarily suspended from his job after blowing the whistle on suspected irregularities by his employee.
His burly colleague, Claudiu Tutulan, is another of the play's heroes.
"We, the public, can get rid of the rotten core," Claudiu declares in one of the video clips of interviews that punctuate the play.
"Whistleblowers are not in conflict with the boss or unhappy with their salary, it's about the public good," says Carbunariu, 38, who directed the work recently on stage at an international festival in Sibiu in Transylvania.
Romania, the second poorest country in the European Union, is under intense pressure from Brussels to fight corruption.
Twenty-seven senior public figures were brought to court last year on charges of corruption, including former prime minister Victor Ponta, whose trial is ongoing.
Despite its reputation for graft, Romania is one of the rare EU states with advanced legislation protecting whistleblowers along with Slovenia, Ireland, Luxembourg and Britain -- though the law is little known.
- Perceived as 'snitches' -
At the Romanian theatre festival, spectators got the chance to debate with five of the real-life "heroes", including the three Romanians, all present or former employees of the highways agency which has been the target of several government investigations.
Carbunariu makes the point that taking up the mantle of a whistleblower comes with a huge risk.
"It's incredible how similar methods are used in Italy, Great Britain and Romania to make them shut up," Carbunariu says.
They are perceived as "snitches" and feel pressure from their bosses and colleagues, with consequent risks for their livelihood and health.
But calling out corruption also raises the question of how to distinguish between malicious informers and those acting out of public interest.
Activists like Ian Foxley, a former British army officer who exposed suspected bribes in arms sales, say whistleblowers' claims should be investigated.
If the claims are proven we should "praise them for bringing forward something which is broken in society," said Foxley.
"It doesn't matter whether you are in England or Romania or Bulgaria or Italy, the same principle applies: you inherit the society that you deserve," says Foxley who co-founded an NGO in Britain to advise whistleblowers.
Onstage in Romania, fiction, reality and flashes of humour in "Common People" blend to convey a life that, for many whistleblowers, teeters on the absurd.
"When one plays characters like these it's very hard to understand the absurdity of what they experienced. It's a paradox: they are in the right but they are the ones who get sick, lose their job, their home," says actor Florin Cosulet.
A 44-year-old member of the audience, identified by her first name of Marina, said the play gave her hope -- that "not everyone is closing their eyes to the obvious and that my children will live in a better society."
Whistleblowers featuring in the play caution that their tale is, literally, a work in progress.
"The important thing is to see how my story ends," says Goga in another of the play's video clips.
"If it ends badly people will say my struggle was futile... (but) if I succeed, potential fraudsters will say 'you saw what happened -- it's not worth it'."

Tuesday, August 2nd 2016
Anca Teodorescu

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