By Sean Buchanan
Civil society organisations (CSOs) and independent media play a vital role in anti-corruption efforts, yet CSOs working on governance and human rights issues are subject to ever-greater restrictions on their operations while attacks on journalists are on the rise in many parts of the world.
Such crackdowns, says Transparency International in this year’s Corruption Perceptions Index released on February 21, are not only deeply concerning in their own right, but also add to an environment in which corrupt public officials, shady businesses and organised criminals are able to act with impunity.
The index ranks 180 countries and territories by their perceived levels of public sector corruption according to experts and businesspeople.
According to the global anti-corruption organisation, curbing corruption requires more than just well-designed laws because corrupt individuals have proven very adept at finding ways to get around formal constraints. For this reason, grassroots and bottom-up approaches to fighting corruption tend to be more sustainable in the long run than isolated institutional and legal reform.
Transparency International notes that because well-intentioned laws are poorly enforced and institutions lack the ‘teeth’ to make anti-corruption efforts truly effective, civil society and media are essential in applying pressure and keeping governments honest and accountable.
Specifically, freedom of association, including the ability of people to form groups and influence public policy, is vital to anti-corruption, with CSOs playing a key role in denouncing violations of rights or speaking out against breaches of law.
Similarly, a free and independent media serves an important function in investigating and reporting incidences of corruption. The voices of both civil society and journalists put a spotlight on bad actors and can help trigger action by law enforcement and the court system.
Coinciding with release of its public sector corruption index, Transparency International compared this index with various other measurements of press freedom and civil society space, finding evidence to suggest that those countries that respect press freedom, encourage open dialogue and allow for full participation of CSOs in the public arena tend to be more successful at controlling corruption.
Conversely, countries that repress journalists, restrict civil liberties and seek to stifle civil society organisations typically score lower on the public sector corruption index.
The relationship between press freedom and corruption is further highlighted by data provided by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) which document cases of journalists killed while reporting on a story.
Since 2012, 368 journalists died while pursing stories and 96 percent of those deaths were in countries with corrupt public sectors (countries scoring below 45 on Transparency International’s corruption index). Moreover, one in five journalists killed worldwide were investigating corruption-related stories.
Hungary and Brazil are key examples of the relationship between civil rights and corruption. Recently, Hungary enacted a series of measures to restrict press freedom. In addition, recent draft legislation in Hungary threatens to restrict NGOs and revoke their charitable status.
In Brazil, civil society’s ability to participate in decision making in the country has reduced recently, and the country is also a dangerous place for journalists, with 20 killed in the last six years.
According to Transparency International, some countries with relatively good ranking on its corruption index continue to impose crippling restrictions on the media and civil society groups. Such countries are, however, what the organisation calls ‘outliers’.
The overwhelming body of evidence from both academia and the frontline indicates that the protection of journalistic and civil freedoms is a prerequisite for any long-term reduction in a country’s level of corruption.
However, research also points to a vicious cycle, whereby widespread corruption chips away at remaining civic space and targets groups that pose a challenge to authority, while at the same time the inability of citizens to hold their governments accountable contributes to even greater abuse.
CSOs, grassroots movements and journalists are vital for improving the quality of governance, but respect for civil liberties – such as freedom of expression and association – is only one component of an effective anti-corruption agenda.
These elements are all the more powerful when combined with genuine political will on the part of governments to tackle problems at their root, concludes the anti-corruption organisation.