How “Scandalizing” Corruption Can Backfire

High profile corruption scandals are making headlines almost every day: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is embroiled in multiple bribery allegations; Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (known as Lula) was convicted for his involvement in corruption; Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski was forced to resign after his allies were caught on tape buying political support to defeat his impeachment vote. The list could go on and on. And one cannot help noticing that the media coverage of these high-profile corruption cases often focuses on the most lurid, sensational aspects of individual politicians’ corrupt behavior. For example, as the Netanyahu probes unfolded, the Israeli media emphasized the juicy details: how Netanyahu and his wife were bribed with Cuban cigars and Dom Pérignon worth up to $130,000, the state’s annual allocation of approximately $3,000 for the PM’s pistachio ice cream supply, and his son’s bragging of how his father pushed through a gas deal caught on tape in a strip club. And this is but one example. It seems that corruption cases are often covered as if they were TV dramas, with entertaining plot twists and voyeuristic appeal. To put this in the terminology developed by Shanto Iyengar in his book on how TV news frames political issues, much of the contemporary media coverage of corruption tends to be “episodic” (focusing on individual stories or specific events, putting the issues in a more subjective light, and including sensational or provocative content) as opposed to “thematic” (more systematic, abstract, and in-depth, and providing a wider context for a more nuanced understanding of the causes and trends).

Such salacious coverage of corruption is perhaps unavoidable; these tawdry details attract more readers and viewers than dry reporting on financial misdeeds and back-room negotiations. And one might think that such coverage would be more effective in motivating citizens to take action against corruption—whether through votes, protests, organizing, or other means. After all, as Jimmy Chalk argued last year on this blog, anticorruption narratives can be more effective when they include dramatic stories with virtuous heroes and sinister villains. That may well be true for narratives fashioned by activists in the context of a campaign, but for news reporting, the episodic/scandal-centric approach may be counterproductive, for three main reasons:

Continue reading

Defending Those Who Expose Corruption: Defamation Safe Harbor Legislation to Protect Investigative Journalists

In May 2017, Russian journalist Dmitry Popkov, who investigated corruption in local governments, was shot five times and found dead in his backyard. The perpetrators were never identified. In October 2017, a car bomb killed Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, who had been investigating possible corruption by Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat. Although three suspects were charged with carrying out the attack, the masterminds behind the plot were never found. And in February 2018, an unidentified hitman killed Slovak journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée, both 27, in the couple’s newly-purchased home. Kuciak was in the middle of an investigation of the Italian organized crime group ’Ndrangheta and its corrupt ties to Slovakia’s governing political party SMER. Slovak officials arrested seven suspects allegedly connected to the ’Ndrangheta and the murder, but did not find enough evidence to file charges and released them 48 hours later. Although weeks of mass demonstrations led to the resignation of the Slovak Prime Minister, the perpetrators of Kuciak’s murder were never held accountable.

Sadly, these are not the only such incidents. Reporters Without Borders states that last year 39 journalists were murdered because “their reporting threatened political, economic, or criminal interests.” And in many of these cases, despite government assurances of a thorough investigation—and despite a 2013 United Nations Resolution that urges Member States to conduct “impartial, speedy and effective investigations” of journalist murders—the perpetrators are never brought to justice. Perhaps this is not surprising. After all, these murders are often associated with sophisticated crime syndicates that leave few traces for investigators to follow, and an effective investigation would require significant resources and expertise beyond the capacity of many governments. (In some cases, such as Caruana Galizia’s murder, assistance from Dutch forensic experts and the FBI enabled local authorities to arrest suspects linked to the attack, but this is not regular practice.) Perhaps more importantly, resolving the murders of journalists who expose public corruption is not always in the interest of government officials, at least when doing so might provide further evidence of the government’s corrupt acts and expose officials implicated in the journalist’s work.

Given these weaknesses, many corrupt officials and associated criminal networks may conclude that killing a journalist before a story is published may be an effective way to eliminate it altogether. Sadly, this is indeed often the case. But not always: One of the striking things about the recent case in Slovakia is the decision of Kuciak’s employer, the news website Aktuality, to publish his unfinished article. And it appears that this decision to publish, not just the murders themselves, contributed to the massive public outcry and political backlash that has already forced the Prime Minister and several other high-level officials to resign.

Publishing a journalist’s unfinished article is not common practice for newspapers; it was likely done in the Kuciak case because the investigation was almost finished. Usually newspapers are hesitant to publish due to fear of defamation lawsuits, which are a drain on the publication’s resources and reputation. So-called SLAPPs (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) are filed in jurisdictions with strong defamation laws in order to intimidate journalists and media outlets, and prevent them from publishing certain articles. Some members of the European Parliament have been pushing the European Commission to protect investigative journalism by adopting anti-SLAPP measures.

Another reform measure, which hasn’t yet been part of the conversation, would be to create a special exception to defamation laws that would apply when a media outlet publishes a story, on a matter of public concern, by a journalist who was murdered before the story was complete. In other words, countries should enact a “safe harbor” from the ordinary operation of defamation laws in these special circumstances—one that would allow for the expedient dismissal of defamation suits against media outlets that publish the incomplete work of a murdered journalist.

Creating such a safe harbor would have a number of important advantages, and only very limited downsides:  Continue reading

How Can an Anticorruption Agency Repair Its Reputation After a Scandal? Lessons from Ghana

Corruption-plagued countries often create independent anticorruption agencies (ACAs) to ensure the integrity of other institutions. But sometimes ACAs get caught up in their own scandals—scandals that can undermine their credibility and hard-won public trust. ACAs may be particularly at risk because of the threat they pose to powerful elites, who will always be on the lookout for ways to undercut ACAs. Of course, ACAs should be attuned to these risks and to put measures in place to minimize them. But no preventative system is perfect. What to do when it fails? When an ACA’s reputation has been besmirched by an internal corruption scandal, what can the agency do to restore public trust?

Ghana’s experience may offer some lessons. In 2008, Ghana established the Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ), which is responsible for anticorruption enforcement, among other things. CHRAJ has done much good work, from conducting investigations of corruption allegations to producing conflict-of-interest guidelines and a code of conduct. But in 2011, the CHRAJ was rocked by an internal scandal when it was revealed that Lauretta Lamptey, then chief of the CHRAJ, had misappropriated public funds to renovate her official residence, to pay hotel bills, and to upgrade her air tickets. The scandal “dented the image of the CHRAJ both nationally and internationally” and jeopardized public trust in the CHRAJ and the willingness of Ghanaian citizens to report corruption cases to the commission.

Damage control was absolutely crucial—and seems to have been largely successful. According to the US State Department’s Ghana 2016 Human Rights Report, public confidence in the CHRAJ is again high. The CHRAJ’s relative success in restoring credibility after its internal corruption scandal suggests a few guidelines for how an ACA can respond effectively in this sort of situation:

Continue reading