Malaysia’s Anti-Fake News Bill Breaks Dangerous New Ground

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.

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Rooting Out Malaysia’s Deep-Seated Corruption Requires Fundamental Political Reform

In a previous post, I wrote that to rebuild credibility and clean house in the wake of the 1MDB scandal, Malaysia needs to give the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission independent prosecutorial power. Even that much-needed reform, however, would leave Malaysia with a long way to go in its anticorruption efforts. The biggest obstacle to real improvement in Malaysia’s fight against corruption is not technical, but political: the chokehold that a single party—the National Front (Barisan Nasional or “BN”)—has on Malaysian politics.

The BN is a coalition party dominated by the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), and it has been in power since the 1970s. In a country with deep ethnic divisions, the party has managed to cling to power by perpetuating a far-reaching system of preferential treatment for the ethnic Malay majority. As a result, UMNO has a lock on the Malay vote – and therefore on general elections. Furthermore, Malay-owned firms get first priority for the award of government contracts, which perpetuates a culture of cronyism. UMNO leadership has a symbiotic relationship with an elite class of Malay businesspeople. On top of all this, districts in Malaysia are gerrymandered to give more weight to rural Malay areas. In the most recent general election, in 2013, the opposition party won the popular vote but did not win enough parliamentary seats to take power.

A party with a near-guaranteed place at the top has little incentive to clean up corruption. As visibly corrupt as UMNO may be, Malay voters are forced to weigh punishing UNMO corruption against preserving their privileges in every sector of life, from education to home-buying to business. Until there are significant changes in Malaysia’s political structure, anticorruption efforts are likely to be piecemeal and ultimately insignificant. A more structural change is required if there is to be any hope for rooting out corruption in Malaysia.

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US Anticorruption Policy in a Trump Administration Revisited: An Evaluation of Last Year’s Doom-and-Gloom Predictions

Almost exactly one year ago, the day after the U.S. presidential election, I published a deeply pessimistic post about the likely future of U.S. anticorruption policy under a Trump presidency. As I acknowledged at the time, “the consequences of a Trump presidency are potentially so dire for such a broad range of issues–from health care to climate change to national security to immigration to the preservation of the fundamental ideals of the United States as an open and tolerant constitutional democracy–that even thinking about the implications of a Trump presidency for something as narrow and specific as anticorruption policy seems almost comically trivial.” That statement is, alas, still true. But what about the impact on anticorruption specifically? In my post last year, I made a bunch of predictions about the likely impact of a Trump presidency on corruption, anticorruption, and related issues. What did I get right and where did I go wrong?

This may seem a bit self-indulgent, but I think it’s often useful to go back and assess one’s own forecasts, not only in the interests of accountability and self-criticism, but also because examining where we got things right and, more importantly, where we went wrong can help us do a better job in the future. Of course, one difficulty in assessing my own predictions is that many of them concerned longer-term effects that we can’t really assess after one year (really 9+ months). And in some cases the predictions concern things that it’s hard to assess objectively. But it’s still a useful exercise. So, here goes: Continue reading

Fixing Everything But What’s Broken: Malaysia after the 1MDB Scandal

The Malaysian 1MDB scandal sparked the largest investigation in the history of the U.S. Department of Justice Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative and has revealed serious problems with Malaysia’s anticorruption infrastructure. The DOJ has filed civil forfeiture claims for $1.7 billion in assets obtained with funds diverted from 1MDB, a sovereign wealth fund ostensibly intended to promote economic development in Malaysia. The money ended up in a stunning variety of locations around the globe. Nearly $700 million found its way into the Malaysian Prime Minister’s personal bank accounts. His stepson’s production company suddenly had the funds needed to back the Hollywood movie The Wolf of Wall Street. A financier with close ties to the government bought an Australian model jewels worth $8.1 million.

Meanwhile, the Malaysian government insists there is nothing to see here. The newly-installed Malaysian Attorney General cleared Prime Minister Najib Razak of all wrongdoing and put a stop to the investigation by the independent Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC). As an earlier post explained, the previous Attorney General, who headed an inter-agency task force investigating the 1MDB scandal, resigned under suspicious circumstances, and Najib appointed his replacement. Najib also replaced several cabinet members who had called for investigations into 1MDB. The breakdown of justice in the 1MDB scandal may seem all the more surprising to outside observers, since Malaysia had appeared to be making strides in addressing its corruption problem, and the MACC—which was founded in 2009 and modeled on Hong Kong’s Independent Commission Against Corruption—had received fairly good reviews (see here, here, and here).

In the wake of the 1MDB scandal, there have been a variety of proposals for improving Malaysia’s anticorruption efforts. Most of these proposals, especially those emanating from the government, involve a flurry of activity and the creation of new anticorruption institutions. For example, the government has recently proposed creating a new National Integrity and Good Governance Department. The Malaysian Bar has called for the establishment of an Independent Anti-Corruption Commission (IACC) to provide oversight for MACC. The MACC itself, despite its inaction on 1MDB, is ramping up other anticorruption campaigns. This all fits an unfortunate pattern in Malaysia: creating lots of new agencies or new structures, or undertaking other actions that make the government “look busy,” but that don’t actually get to the heart of the main problem: the lack of a politically independent anticorruption prosecutor.  Continue reading

U.S. to Honor Corruption Fighters from Afghanistan, Angola, Guatemala, Malaysia, and Ukraine

Afghanistan NGO leader Khalil Parsa, Angolan journalist Rafael Marques de Morais, Guatemalan judge Claudia Escobar, Malaysian civil society activist Cynthia Gabriel, and Ukrainian investigative journalist Denys Bihus will share the 2017 Democracy Award for their work promoting democracy in their countries.  Bestowed annually by the National Endowment for Democracy, the U.S. democracy promotion agency, the ceremony will be held June 7 at the U.S. Capitol.  Republican House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan and the House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi will both speak.

This year’s award is significant for three reasons.  In the wake of concerns Trump Administration rhetoric has raised about America’s commitment to human rights and democracy, Speaker Ryan and Leader Pelosi’s participation is a reminder that a strong, bipartisan consensus on these basic, universal values remains deeply embedded in U.S. political culture.  Second is the recognition by the National Endowment, perhaps the world’s leading advocate of democracy, that the fight against corruption is an essential element in building a democratic state.  Finally, the award is one more sign that those fighting corruption at home are not alone, that the international community supports them and stands with them.

More on the ceremony, biographies of each recipient, and the National Endowment’s democracy promotion work here.

A Tale of Two Regions: Anticorruption Trends in Southeast Asia and Latin America

OK, “best of times” and “worst of times” would be a gross exaggeration. But still, when I consider recent developments in the fight against corruption in Latin American and Southeast Asia, it seems that these two regions are moving in quite different directions. And the directions are a bit surprising, at least to me.

If you’d asked me two years ago (say, in the summer of 2014) which of these two regions provoked more optimism, I would have said Southeast Asia. After all, Southeast Asia was home to two jurisdictions with “model” anticorruption agencies (ACAs)—Singapore and Hong Kong—and other countries in the regions, including Malaysia and especially Indonesia, had established their own ACAs, which had developed good reputations for independence and effectiveness. Thailand and the Philippines were more of a mixed bag, with revelations of severe high-level corruption scandals (the rice pledging fiasco in Thailand and the pork barrel scam in the Philippines), but there were signs of progress in both of those countries too. More controversially, in Thailand the 2014 military coup was welcomed by many in the anticorruption community, who thought that the military would clean up the systemic corruption associated with the populist administrations of Thaksin Shinawatra and his successor (and sister) Yingluck Shinawatra—and then turn power back over to the civilian government, as the military had done in the past. And in the Philippines, public outrage at the brazenness of the pork barrel scam, stoked by social media, and public support for the Philippines’ increasingly aggressive ACA (the Office of the Ombudsman), was cause for hope that public opinion was finally turning more decisively against the pervasive mix of patronage and corruption that had long afflicted Philippine democracy. True, the region was still home to some of the countries were corruption remained pervasive and signs of progress were scant (such as Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar), but overall, the region-wide story seemed fairly positive—especially compared to Latin America where, aside from the usual bright spots (Chile, Uruguay, and to a somewhat lesser extent Costa Rica), there seemed to be precious little for anticorruption advocates to celebrate.

But now, in the summer of 2016, things look quite a bit different. In Southeast Asia, the optimism I felt two years ago has turned to worry bordering on despair, while in Latin America, things are actually starting to look up, at least in some countries. I don’t want to over-generalize: Every country’s situation is unique, and too complicated to reduce to a simple better/worse assessment. I’m also well aware that “regional trends” are often artificial constructs with limited usefulness for serious analysis. But still, I thought it might be worthwhile to step back and compare these two regions, and explain why I’m so depressed about Southeast Asia and so cautiously optimistic about Latin America at the moment.

I’ll start with the sources of my Southeast Asian pessimism, highlighting the jurisdictions that have me most worried: Continue reading

The 2015 CPI and Year-to-Year Changes: A Definite Improvement, But Problems Remain

As most people who follow this blog are likely aware, Transparency International released the 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) last week. There is, of course, a lot to talk about here, and I’m sure many commentators and scholars will spend a lot of time poring over the new data and debating its significance. Given my previous criticisms of the CPI’s suggestion that scores for the same country can be compared across time (see here, here, here, and here), that was naturally the first thing I focused on. I was hoping that TI might take up some version of my suggestion to report statistical confidence intervals in an easy-to-see place in the main data table, or, even better, test for statistically significant changes in scores across years. Alas, TI didn’t do either of those things. (The confidence intervals are still available, but you have to download the data to find them.) TI did, however, report that since 2012, some countries had improved, while others had deteriorated. In particular, TI noted three countries (Greece, Senegal, and the UK) had improved their CPI scores since 2012, while five countries (Australia, Brazil, Libya, Spain, and Turkey) had seen a notable worsening.

Because of last year’s fiasco with China (where TI emphasized a decline in China’s CPI score that turned out to be bogus), I was initially skeptical. So, I went ahead and implemented the procedure that I outlined in my post from a few months ago to see whether, for these eight countries, there really was a genuine, statistically meaningful change in the CPI score. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that in all eight of the countries that TI identified, the change in the CPI score between 2012 and 2015 was indeed statistically significant at conventional levels, and do not seem to have been driven by the addition or subtraction of sources in the later year, or by a large anomalous jump in a single source. (Though it’s perhaps worth noting that in the case of Brazil – which TI particularly emphasizes in its press release – the change is just barely significant at conventional levels, and of the seven sources used to construct the score, although four indicate moderate to large declines, two show no change and one actually rates Brazil as improving slightly from 2012 to 2015.) So, while I still have a number of criticisms (about which more below), I’ll gladly give credit where credit is due: In this year’s publicity materials, TI has indeed identified countries where there is statistically significant change in CPI scores, generally driven by changes in several of the underlying data sources. I hope that in future years, TI will go further (and save me some time) by simply including in the main data table not only the confidence interval for the current year, but also a simple three-category indicator (up, down, null) for whether there has been a statistically significant change in the CPI in the past three years. (This is important because of the way the CPI is covered by mainstream journalists: Though researchers might dig into the data tables, most journalists or casual readers just look for year-to-year changes.)

Now, I did say I still had some concerns, so in the interest of continued constructive engagement, let me lay out why I still don’t think we should treat within-country year-to-year changes in CPI scores as terribly meaningful: Continue reading