This past February 20th, the people of Lithuania awoke to the shocking announcement that the country’s anticorruption body, the Special Investigation Service (STT), and the Prosecutor General’s Office had opened an investigation into alleged bribery, trading in influence, and abuse of power in the Lithuanian judiciary. The scope of the investigation is breathtaking. So far 26 people have been arrested, including a Supreme Court Judge, eight other judges, an assistant to a Supreme Court Judge, and multiple lawyers. The scale of the allegations dominated media coverage in Lithuania and was picked up by news outlets around the world (see, for example, here, here and here). But this was not the only reason that news of this investigation may have come as a shock to many Lithuanians. Before this story broke, it looked like the ongoing efforts to increase Lithuanian citizens’ trust in their courts had finally started to bear fruit. In 2017, for the first time since polling on the issue began in 1996, more Lithuanians trusted than distrusted their judiciary. This increase in trust was due to several factors. It likely helped that the President, Dalia Grybauskaite, made judicial transparency, openness, and efficiency top priorities during her tenure. The judiciary has also worked to reform itself and together these reforms brought a lot of changes, for example by reforming the judicial selection process, introducing rotation of court leadership, increasing openness, introducing an automated system for assigning cases to judges, and a number of other procedural changes. The Council of Judges—a judicial self-governance body—has also promulgated a Courts Anticorruption Program, pursuant to which individual courts (including the Supreme Court) adopt their own concrete anticorruption plans. On top of this, the National Courts Administration (NCA) (the external administrative institution that serves the judiciary and judicial self-government bodies) has worked on increasing communication about the work of the courts by trying to reach out to the explain how the judiciary works, and also encouraging judges to issue explanations about their decisions.
What many now fear, with good reason, is that that the new corruption case will cause the public confidence in the judiciary to collapse. This worry is exacerbated by political dynamics: with elections coming up, many politicians jumped on the bandwagon of attacking corruption in the courts and declaring the need for more reforms—though often without offering any specifics, and sometimes seemingly having no clear understanding of how exactly the judiciary works.
The unfolding drama over judicial corruption in Lithuania highlights the importance of communication between government institutions and the general public—both by the institution under investigation (in this case the judiciary), and by the institutions doing the investigating (in this case the STT and the Prosecutor General). It may seem odd to focus on public relations strategy when the underlying substantive allegations are so serious. But while no one could sensibly claim that better communication is a replacement for, or more important than, substantive action, it would be a serious mistake to underestimate the importance of public communication in a case like this.
Consider each of the dimensions of public communication noted previously—by the courts and by the investigators:
- First, with respect to the courts, an institution under investigation needs to communicate clearly so that the investigation of specific individuals and incidents does not undermine the legitimacy of the entire institution. Confidence in the judiciary is crucial for a democratic state to function (see, for example, here, here, and here). Moreover, lack of trust in the judiciary can exacerbate corruption, both because lack of public trust in the courts can lead people to resolve their disputes by bribing public officials rather than heading to court, and because when an institution comes to be viewed as untrustworthy, the institution’s own employees may be more likely to justify–and hence be more likely to engage in—corrupt or unethical behavior. The NCA seems to understand the importance of institutions under investigation—especially courts—having a good communication strategy. In the weeks since the allegations were announced, the NCA hosted a press conference to assure the public that the remaining judges are working to ensure a fair and impartial judiciary, and that the judiciary is looking for ways to avoid such situations in the future. The official NCA social media platforms were used not only to inform the public that the work of the judiciary is going forward despite the scandal, but also respond to citizen questions. The NCA also used the opportunity to explain the existing measures to manage risks. Multiple press releases did things like remind people of the whistleblowers’ channels at the courts, as well as other reporting options, and explained in detail how cases are allocated to particular judges in order to demonstrate that there is little (if any) space for manipulation there. The Supreme Court issued a separate press release assuring the public that its work is going forward despite the investigations, implying that only particular judges and not the entire Court is suspected; the Court later issued another public statement acknowledging the hard work the Court will need to do to restore public trust. This sort of clear communication from the judiciary can help to ensure that the situation does not do more harm to the judiciary’s reputation than has already been done by the allegations themselves.
- Second, this case also illustrates is how, especially in the internet age, those conducting the investigation also must have a well-thought-out communications strategy. In the past, corruption investigations might have proceeded behind a relative veil of secrecy, only providing minimal information to the public. Modern technologies have changed that. Immediately after the official STT press release announcing the investigation, social media and online news portals exploded. Politicians made announcements, public policy commentators offered their insights online and maybe most importantly, regular people across the country filled the internet with their own assessments, questions, and messages of disappointment. This illustrates the new reality in which anticorruption agencies operate – whether they like it or not, their work now almost always becomes the center of public debate. The public discourse can either be favorable and supportive, or it can turn against the investigation, threatening its legitimacy in the eyes of public. While there is some debate on whether anticorruption investigations should always be transparent, in sensitive cases like this, a certain level of clarity is crucial. Otherwise, the investigation may inadvertently feed the counterproductive narrative that “everybody is corrupt,” thus decreasing public determination to fight corruption and potentially even eroding public trust in the entire political system (there has recently been a great post about this on this blog). This may lead to more corruption or fraud, since studies show that citizens with low levels of trust in the institutions of the political system will find it more acceptable to break the law – and, specifically, that perceived descriptive norms can impact corrupt behavior. Given this, the STT’s communication with the public in this sensitive case needs to be comprehensive, continuous, and clear. The consequences of failing to ensure this have already been demonstrated. For example, the lack of clear communication on the exact legal procedural grounds for arresting the suspected judges after the allegations were originally announced has already laid the groundwork for public questioning of the legitimacy of those arrests (see, for example, here and here), especially in the legal community. Modern anticorruption agencies should embrace the fact that they must operate in a very public domain, lest the public lose confidence in the legitimacy of their investigations. Failure to properly manage communication about an investigation can also create unreasonable public expectations. For example, if the case opens with public arrests, but closes with fines, this may fuel the public perception that there are still “untouchable” people who can easily evade harsh consequences.
The information revolution of the 21st century has inevitably changed the way we fight corruption, and requires a new degree of transparency and public engagement with the public. Both the institutions that are dealing with threats to their integrity, and the institutions that are responsible for investigating those threats, need to adapt to this new environment and ensure not only that they do their jobs well, but that they play an active role in shaping the public narrative regarding their work.