Letter to Nigerian Attorney General Malami from Civil Society: Stop Harassing Anticorruption Activist

Civil society organizations are poised to write Nigerian Attorney General Abubakar Malami asking he dismiss criminal charges against long-time Nigerian anticorruption activist Olanrewaju Suraju. His crime? Circulating documents implicating an associate of the Attorney General in the alleged payment of $1 billion by oil giants Royal Dutch Shell and ENI in return for rights OPL-245, Nigeria’s most lucrative offshore oil block.  

Not only is a criminal indictment for Suraju’s conduct absurd on its face, the Community Court of Justice for the Economic Community of West African States, whose decisions are binding on Nigeria, has declared the cyberstalking law under which he is being charged in violation of the African Peoples and Human Rights Charter.  

The text of the letter is below. Concerned NGOs and individuals are invited to add their names. Use the “Contact” function at the top of the page. Alternatively, letters supporting Nigerian activists’ freedom to urge that those responsible for corruption be brought to justice can be sent to Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari through info@statehouse.gov.ng

Dear Attorney-General Abubakar Malami:

Our attention has been drawn to press reports of an indictment, approved by your office, against Olanrewaju Suraju, chair of the anti-corruption and human right group HEDA, for alleged cyberstalking.[1]

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New Podcast Episode, Featuring Alice Mattoni

A new episode of KickBack: The Global Anticorruption Podcast is now available. In this week’s episode, my collaborators Nils Köbis and Jonathan Kleinpass interview Alice Mattoni, Associate Professor in the Department of Political and Social Sciences at the University of Bologna. Professor Mattoni is an expert both in anticorruption and in social movements more broadly, and the interview addresses several aspects of how these two topics intersect. For instance, Professor Mattoni discusses what anticorruption activists and scholars can learn from research on social movements–for example, why it makes more sense to speak in terms of outcomes rather than “successes” or “failures,” and also the importance of how issues are framed. Professor Mattoni also addresses whether (and how) it might be possible to mobilize a global anticorruption movement, in light of the very specific and different understandings of the nature of the corruption problem in different countries. Professor Mattoni also discusses some of the challenges of conducing field research on corruption, and why some people resist labeling themselves as “anticorruption activists.” The final part of the interview turns to social movement activity online, including online anticorruption activism, and whether these forms of online protest can make a positive difference, or whether online forums tend instead to produce so-called “slacktivism,” in which people post or re-post slogans and memes without effecting real change.

You can also find both this episode and an archive of prior episodes at the following locations:

KickBack is a collaborative effort between GAB and the ICRN. If you like it, please subscribe/follow, and tell all your friends! And if you have suggestions for voices you’d like to hear on the podcast, just send me a message and let me know.

Why Are the Architects of China’s Anticorruption Campaign (Mis-)Reading Tocqueville?

Back in 2013, senior Chinese Communist Party (CCP) official Wang Qishan, who was then head of the CCP’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), and is widely considered the architect of President Xi Jinping’s anticorruption campaign, instructed party officials to read Alexis de Tocqueville’s L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution (The Old Regime and the Revolution). This is notable in part because the Xi regime has a reputation for rejecting Western thinking, particularly with respect to governance. The timing is also intriguing, in that Wang’s advice that CCP officials should read Tocqueville’s text occurred right as the anticorruption drive was getting underway.

It’s tempting to dismiss Wang’s apparent interest in and enthusiasm for Tocqueville is a minor idiosyncratic biographical detail, with little connection to his or the CCP’s approach to governance generally, or anticorruption more specifically. But I think his interest in Tocqueville’s work is more significant, and more revealing, about the thinking shaping China’s anticorruption strategy today.

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New Podcast Episode, Featuring Doussouba Konaté and Moussa Kondo

A new episode of KickBack: The Global Anticorruption Podcast is now available. In this week’s episode, I interview Doussouba Konaté and Moussa Kondo, who are, respectively, the Program Officer for the Accountability Lab and the Country Director for Accountability Lab Mali. (The Accountability Lab is a civil society group organized as a network of local Accountability Labs that focus on fighting corruption and promoting accountability and integrity.) In our conversation, Doussouba and Moussa describe the Accountability Lab’s “human-centric” approach to fighting corruption, and discuss some of their main initiatives. These include the Integrity Icon project, which strives to “name and fame” honest government officials, and the civic action teams that help gather information in, and disseminate information to, local communities to facilitate collective action and promote accountability, while combating fake news. Our interview also discusses how, more recently, Accountability Lab Mali has sought to track the disbursement of COVID-19 relief funds. In addition to these specific initiatives, we also discuss the broader political situation in Mali and how the political challenges facing the country relate to the corruption problem, and what the highest priorities for anticorruption reform in Mali should be right now.

You can find this episode here. You can also find both this episode and an archive of prior episodes at the following locations:

KickBack is a collaborative effort between GAB and the ICRN. If you like it, please subscribe/follow, and tell all your friends! And if you have suggestions for voices you’d like to hear on the podcast, just send me a message and let me know.

“NGOs with Foreign Support”: A New Draft Law Threatens Ukraine’s Anticorruption NGOs

In May, Ukrainian Member of Parliament Oleksandr Dubinsky, a controversial member of the Servant of the People Party (Ukraine’s ruling party, headed by President Volodymyr Zelensky), registered a draft law that would label certain civil society organizations as “foreign agents.” More specifically, this legislation—which resembles Russia’s 2012 “foreign agent” law—would:

  • Oblige NGOs receiving at least 50% of their financial support from foreign entities to include the term “foreign support” in their organization’s name, and to include in any materials published by the NGO a disclaimer stating that the materials are published by an organization that functions with foreign support;
  • Initiate the creation of a central register of such NGOs, requiring the Ministry of Justice to publicize a list of these NGOs on its official website and to publish annual reports of foreign-funded NGO activity in Ukraine;
  • Require the management of these NGOs to undergo annual polygraph interviews in order to review whether or not these individuals have committed treason; and
  • Prohibit any individuals in NGO management positions from working in the civil service or holding membership on supervisory boards or in the leadership of state enterprises for five years after working in a foreign-funded NGO.

While Dubinsky’s proposed legislation poses a serious threat to all NGOs that receive foreign funding (except for a few categories that the draft law specifically exempts, such as NGOs that work in the sphere of culture, arts, science, prevention and health of citizens, social protection, social support for the disabled, and environmental protection), this legislation would have a particularly adverse impact on the work of anticorruption NGOs.

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Albanian Political Leaders Are Using Covert Tactics to Silence Anticorruption Watchdog Groups

Civil society and investigative journalism have long played key roles in exposing corruption, and many CSOs and media watchdogs—especially newer, younger organizations—now make extensive use of social media platforms to engage with the public. In Albania, for example, relatively new organizations like Nisma Thurje and Faktoje frequently expose instances of corruption via Facebook, one of the most popular social media platforms in Albania. However, corrupt politicians are taking notice of these innovative tactics and finding equally innovative ways to silence their critics. In addition to ongoing efforts to censor the media and harass activists (see, for example, here and here), the Albanian elite has undertaken more clandestine efforts to attack civil society and journalists.

One savvy scheme involves Acromax Media GmBH (Acromax), a German digital rights company owned by two Albanians, which has close ties to Albania’s ruling Socialist Party. Acromax has contracts with over 95% of Albanian television stations, with far-reaching rights to take action on its own initiative against alleged copyright violations. For example, when a civil society group like Nisma Thurje posts a story on Facebook about a politician’s corruption, and includes a link to interviews or clips of the politician’s speeches that were originally broadcast on one of those TV stations, Acromax files a complaint with the social media platform alleging a copyright violation—even though re-sharing public content that clearly displays the original source is common practice around the world and does not meet the definition of copyright infringement. Moreover, Acromax only files such complaints with respect to stories that are critical of the government; pro-government posts, including clips from these same channels, are not flagged as intellectual property infringement by Acromax.

Distressingly, even though the claims of intellectual property infringement seem bogus, Facebook has largely complied with Acromax’s demands to take down content. This may be due in part to the European Union’s recent 2019 Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market, Article 17 of which makes content-sharing platforms, not just individual content uploaders, liable for intellectual property violations, which in turn has caused Facebook to employ even more automation to deal with its new legal responsibilities. Unfortunately, the automated algorithms currently in use cannot reliably distinguish genuine copyright infringement from legal re-sharing, and the algorithms are sufficiently complex and opaque that it is very difficult for CSOs to challenge the take-down decisions and get their content reinstated. Acromax has exploited these weaknesses in the system to make legitimate civil society watchdogs look like serial copyright infringers. Indeed, Acromax’s harassment campaign has been so successful that two of Nisma Thurje’s founders had personal social media pages shut down because of complaints from Acromax, and Facebook further labeled Nisma Thurje “a dangerous group” and limited the range of Nisma Thurje’s social media capabilities. The technology giant further warned Nisma Thurje that its page would be shut down entirely if Facebook received even one more copyright infringement claim.

Acromax is a well-tuned operation for squelching civil society watchdogs that threaten to expose government wrongdoing, and may serve as a model for similar censorship efforts. Tackling this problem seems daunting, but these are some concrete steps that various actors—including governments, technology companies, and the civil society groups themselves—can take to address this new kind of assault. Continue reading

Guest Post: Pushing for Anticorruption through the G20 Civil Society Engagement Process

Today’s guest post is from Blair Glencorse, the Executive Director of the Accountability Lab

As many readers of this blog know, the annual G20 meeting has a variety of associated processes, including a forum for engagement with global civil society known as the C20. This is an opportunity for civil society organizations (CSOs)—including grassroots groups, rights-focused organizations, and other activists—to feed policy recommendations directly to the most powerful governments in the world. This process has not been without challenges, especially when the G20 meeting is held in a country that is not exactly friendly to civil society activism (including Russia in 2013, China in 2016 and this year in Saudi Arabia). More generally, promises have not always matched realities, and governments have not always lived up to their commitments. Nevertheless, the C20 remains an important mechanism for ensuring that diverse, citizen-oriented voices from civil society are heard as part of G20 decision-making.

The C20 has a number of working groups, including an Anti-Corruption Working Group (ACWG), which I am co-leading this year with Dr. Saleh Al-Sheniefi. Our mandate is to prepare “comprehensive recommendations for consideration by leaders on how the G20 could continue to make practical and valuable contributions to international efforts to combat corruption.” The ACWG has active participation from civil society members from more than 50 countries, and—after consulting with other G20 engagement groups and consulted with numerous external experts—we have drafted a 3-page policy paper which will be sent to the parallel G20 Anti-Corruption Working Group in mid-May. The paper is open for comments for the next several weeks; and we would welcome any and all ideas from this blog’s readership.

While there are obviously many aspects of the corruption problem and its potential solutions that we could have addressed, we chose to focus on what we understand to be the G20’s main anticorruption priorities. (Our thinking is that, while getting the G20 to listen and live up to its commitments is always challenging at best, the odds are better if civil society’s recommendations align with the G20’s own sense of its top priorities in this area.) In particular, our policy paper focuses on the following items: Continue reading

Guest Post: Measures To Counter Corruption in the Coronavirus Pandemic Response

Today’s guest post is from Sarah Steingrüber, an independent global health expert and Global Health Lead for CurbingCorruption.

The coronavirus pandemic is a global health challenge the likes of which has not been seen in over a century. The outbreak demands swift and bold action not only in the direct response to the pandemic, but also in ensuring that monies are correctly spent, that companies do not profit unfairly from misfortune, and that power is not abused by our leaders.

Two weeks ago, I published a commentary on this blog that identified some of the critical corruption risks associated with the response to the coronavirus pandemic. In today’s post, I turn from a diagnosis of the risks to some possible solutions. In particular, I want to highlight four types of measures that will help to mitigate some of the corruption risks that were identified in my previous post. Continue reading

New Podcast, Featuring Gary Kalman

A new episode of KickBack: The Global Anticorruption Podcast is now available. In this episode, I interview Gary Kalman, formerly (and at the time of the interview) the Executive Director of the FACT Coalition, and now the Director of the U.S. Office of Transparency International. The first part of our conversation focuses on the work Mr. Kalman did at the FACT Coalition on the push for new U.S. legislation to crack down on anonymous companies. We also discuss his vision, and top priorities, for Transparency International’s new U.S. office.

You can find this episode, along with links to previous podcast episodes, at the following locations:

KickBack is a collaborative effort between GAB and the ICRN. If you like it, please subscribe/follow, and tell all your friends! And if you have suggestions for voices you’d like to hear on the podcast, just send me a message and let me know.

New Podcast, Featuring Leonor Ortiz Monasterio and Miguel Meza

A new episode of KickBack: The Global Anticorruption Podcast is now available. In this episode, I interview Leonor Ortiz Monasterio and Miguel Meza of the Mexican civil society organization Mexicanos Contra Corrupcion y la Impunidad (MCCI) (“Mexicans Against Impunity and Corruption). They describe how MCCI works to fight corruption in Mexico, and critically evaluate the anticorruption efforts of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (known as AMLO), who ran in large part on an anticorruption platform, but whose approach to anticorruption during his first year in office has been met with significant controversy.

You can find this episode, along with links to previous podcast episodes, at the following locations:

KickBack is a collaborative effort between GAB and the ICRN. If you like it, please subscribe/follow, and tell all your friends! And if you have suggestions for voices you’d like to hear on the podcast, just send me a message and let me know.