The tools of democracy may combat tyranny, but they do not always combat corruption. That’s not to suggest that democratic values run counter to anticorruption efforts. Indeed, a free press and a competitive multi-party system remain powerful tools in ensuring corruption does not take root. However, once corruption has snaked its way throughout a government, democratic values and institutions may be too easily manipulated to fight corruption effectively. Perhaps no world leader illustrates this seeming paradox better than Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad, who served as Prime Minister twice. His long first tenure, from 1981 to 2003, earned him notoriety as a near-dictator whose autocratic regime contributed to a deeply-rooted culture of corruption and cronyism. During his short-lived second tenure from 2018 to 2020, Mahathir was heralded as a champion of democracy—but the liberal democratic pillars that he had suppressed during his first tenure, most notably genuine political competition and a free press, contributed to the failure of his anticorruption efforts and ultimately to the fall of his government. The bitter irony is that the suppression of both political competition and press freedom helped to create Malaysia’s entrenched corruption during Mahathir’s first tenure, while the flourishing of political competition and the free press contributed to the failure of Malaysia’s attempts to root out this entrenched corruption during his second tenure.
Since at least 2016, complaints about “fake news” have become increasingly common all over the world. But “fake news” refers to two separate phenomena. In some cases, “fake news” means stories that are actually untrue (not just distorted, but fabricated, and deliberately disguised to make it appear that they come from a legitimate media outlet rather than a propagandist or troll). Shanil posted about the dangers that this sort of fake news poses to anticorruption efforts last December. But politicians, notably President Trump, have appropriated the “fake news” label and applied it to any coverage that they deem unfavorable or unfair, even when the news comes from a legitimate media outlet and there is no credible argument that the story is a deliberate fabrication.
The conflation of these two kinds of “fake news” is dangerous, not least because concerns about the former may provide politicians with a pretext for suppressing the latter. Case in point: in April, Malaysia enacted a new law—the Anti-Fake News Bill—that purports to criminalize fake news. The purpose of the new law, which gives the government has the power to prosecute those who create or spread “fake news” with jail terms of up to six years and fines up to about $123,000, seems to be giving the government more authority and discretion to stamp out unflattering news. Other Southeast Asian countries such as Singapore and the Philippines are considering similar measures.
While the anticorruption community should fight against corrupt actors using fake news to spread false stories, it should also resist efforts of governments to misuse the “fake news” label as a pretext for more extensive regulation of legitimate media and free speech. Censorship laws like Malaysia’s reduce transparency and scrutiny, and ultimately hurt anticorruption efforts by entrenching corrupt, illiberal governments.
GAB is delighted to welcome back Till Bruckner, an international development expert who recently spent six months living Mauritania, and contributes the following guest post based on his experience there:
What do fish and iron have in common? Answer: Mauritania, a largely desert country of less than four million people in north-western Africa, is immensely rich in both. At the same time, most Mauritanians are poor. And one of the biggest reasons is corruption and misgovernance.
Consider first fishing. Although Mauritania has some of the world’s richest fishing grounds, its marine wealth is carried away by foreign ships whose owners often bribe senior government figures to obtain fishing permits and take their catch straight to Europe or Asia. As a result, the country has failed to develop a significant fishing industry, or domestic fish processing industry, of its own, and a fishing industry that boasts an annual catch of half a million tons generates a mere 40,000 jobs inside Mauritania. Yet to the south, Senegal translates a catch of similar size into at least 130,000 jobs, while to the north, Morocco has turned its million-ton-a-year catch into a massive export industry whose turnover is projected to reach two billion dollars by the end of this decade.
Inland, deep in the Sahara, some mountains contain more metal than rock, consisting of up to 75% iron, one of the highest concentrations in the world. Mauritania nationalized its iron mines in 1974, creating the state-owned monopoly company SNIM. Its workers blast the slopes to rubble, and conveyor belts transport the rubble into waiting railway waggons. The longest train in the world then chugs its way across 700 kilometres of desert, loads its cargo onto giant foreign freighters—and neither the ore nor most of the money paid for it are ever seen again. The looting dynamics in Mauritania’s mining sector are illustrated by the stark contrast between Zouerate, the town in the Sahara where the iron is mined—which looks like a dystopian hellhole straight out of a Mad Max film—and the rich suburbs of the capital city of Nouakchott (which produces virtually nothing), where giant villas rise out of the sand, and oversized SUVs cruise the streets. And in Nouakchott itself, in the poor suburbs, families living five to a windowless room have to pay for their drinking water by the barrel.
The preferred prescription in a situation like this (from the usual suspects: development professionals, anticorruption activists, etc.) is a combination of transparency, accountability, and civil society monitoring. But Mauritania is actually doing well on those dimensions. Continue reading
The Philippines, long mired in corruption, appears to have made progress on this front in recent years. While the current administration’s anticorruption efforts may have contributed to this progress, some commentators have suggested that social media might actually be playing a bigger role in the decline of graft in the country. Indeed, there are some dramatic examples of social media playing a role in the fight against corruption. For instance, as details of a major scheme involving misappropriation of public money began to surface in 2013, social media platforms exploded with photos and videos pulled from the Instagram and Facebook account of Jeane Napoles, whose mother, Janet, had orchestrated the scheme. Filipinos were shocked and appalled by all that ill-gotten wealth could buy—private planes, expensive handbags, multi-million dollar apartments, and even a new car detailed with an Hermes leather exterior (yes, exterior). Even after these accounts were taken down, photos of the Napoles’ lavish lifestyle continued to circulate. These images made people far more aggressive in condemning the actions of those involved, and even inspired the Million People March, when protestors called for complete elimination of the fund used in the scheme. More recently, Facebook posts about sightings of the younger Napoles helped the media to discover that Jeane, who fled the country in 2013, had in fact returned. She has since been charged with tax evasion.
This is encouraging, and no doubt social media platforms can be useful in the fight against corruption. Nonetheless, I’m cautious about overstating the long-term impact that social media might have on corruption in the Philippines. After all, the Philippines has had an active free press for decades, and past administrations have frequently been challenged by civilian participation and condemnation of corrupt practices. Can we really rely on social media to effect lasting change? Continue reading