Why Paying the Media to Uncover Corruption Would Work in India

Jennifer Kline’s recent post on this blog proposed a novel way to support and encourage investigative journalism that exposes corruption: When such exposés result in legal actions that impose substantial monetary penalties on wrongdoers, the responsible media outlet should receive a percentage of the penalty as a reward—comparable to how some countries have programs that pay whistleblowers a percentage of any monetary recoveries that result from the original information that the whistleblowers supplied. While Jennifer’s discussion of this idea was fairly general, and seemed to have in mind implementation in countries like the United States, her proposal may be especially suitable for a country like India. 

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Breaking News without Breaking the Bank: Monetary Rewards for Media Organizations that Expose Corruption

Investigative journalists play a key role in exposing corruption. In many cases, as a direct result of media exposés, the government has been able to recover substantial sums. To take just a few examples: In 2011, the Los Angeles Times revealed that officials in a small California city improperly paid themselves exorbitant salaries, and the subsequent court cases ordered restitution awards nearing $20 million. In 2012, the New York Times exposed Walmart’s widespread bribery in Mexico, and the company ultimately agreed to pay $282 million to settle the resulting seven-year investigation into whether Walmart had violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). In 2017, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) shocked the world when its affiliated journalists broke the Panama Papers scandal, exposing extensive fraud and tax evasion by world leaders, drug traffickers, and celebrities alike. As a result of the ICIJ’s investigation, governments around the world have managed to claw back $1.28 billion from perpetrators thus far. A Malaysian-born British journalist’s investigations (prompted by a whistleblower who provided her with more than 200,000 documents) produced the first hard evidence of what became known as Malaysia’s 1MDB scandal, the world’s largest kleptocracy scheme to date, which has produced, among other things, a nearly $2.9 billion settlement for FCPA violations.

But despite the crucial role journalists play in uncovering corruption, investigative journalism is a risky investment for media outlets. For one thing, this sort of investigative journalism is time- and resource-intensive—much more so than straight reporting—and many investigations come to nothing. And when investigative journalism does uncover evidence of wrongdoing by powerful figures, publishing those stories can be legally and politically risky. So, even though media outlets can reap substantial rewards from successful investigations—in the form of clicks, subscriptions, and prestige—media outlets faced with declining revenues and an increasingly hostile environment may not invest nearly as much in investigations into corruption as would be socially optimal.

To mitigate this problem, I propose what may initially seem like a radical way to create stronger incentives for media outlets to invest in this kind of investigative journalism: When media outlets expose corruption or similar wrongdoing, and this exposure leading to monetary sanctions on the culpable entities or individuals, the media outlets responsible for the reporting ought to receive a percentage of the government’s recovery. Such a proposal is inspired by (though distinct from) the whistleblower reward programs that many governments have already adopted. (For example, in the United States, individuals who voluntarily provide the Securities and Exchange Commission with original information pertaining to securities law violations may receive between 10% and 30% of the total penalty collected if their information leads to a successful prosecution.) A similar “media rewards program” could substantially improve the effectiveness of independent investigative journalism in exposing and deterring corruption.

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Guest Post: Highlights from the UNGASS Anticorruption Session Side Events

Last month, the UN General Assembly held its first-ever Special Session focused specifically on the fight against corruption. In addition to the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) itself, various governments and civil society organizations arranged various side events, held in parallel with the main UNGASS meeting, to allow activists, policymakers, and researchers to share their expertise. Today’s guest post, contributed by Michaella Baker, a JD-MBA student at Northwestern University (working in collaboration with Northwestern Law Professor Juliet Sorensen), summarizes the themes and principal contributions of three of these side events.

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The Decline of Small Newspapers Means Higher Risk of Local Corruption in the U.S.

There is widespread consensus that a free, objective press plays an important role in fighting corruption and holding public officials accountable (see here, here, and here). That’s why, when countries with high levels of public corruption seek to silence investigative journalists or shutter unbiased news outlets, anticorruption organizations like Transparency International are vocal in their opposition. It’s a bit surprising, then, that so little has been said about how the decline of small newspapers in the United States has increased the risk of local corruption.

The decline of small newspapers in the United States has been precipitous. Between 2004 and 2018, there was a net loss of nearly 1,800 papers, over 1,000 of which had circulations under 5,000. Today, around half of all counties in the United States only have one local newspaper, often circulating only on a weekly basis, while nearly 200 counties don’t have a single newspaper—resulting in “news deserts,” defined as communities “with limited access to the sort of credible and comprehensive news and information that feeds democracy at the grassroots levels.” Furthermore, in many of the small- and medium-circulation outlets that remain, newsrooms have been gutted, often due to layoffs imposed by their parent companies. For example, Digital First Media, a publisher that owns more than 50 newspapers, has eliminated two-thirds of all newspaper staff since 2011.  Between 2001 and 2016, employment in the U.S. newspaper industry decreased by more than 50%.

The decline of small newspapers is just one component of a shifting media landscape in the United States. Some of the other trends, like the rise of social media and the proliferation of unverified and sometimes apocryphal online new sources, have been at the center of political discourse. The decline of small newspapers, on the other hand, is often lamented as a regrettable casualty of changing times, but there isn’t enough appreciation of the fact that the decline of small newspapers poses a risk of increased local corruption. Continue reading

Adapting Anticorruption Enforcement to an Age of Populism and Polarization

Shortly after the U.S. Senate acquitted President Clinton in 1999, he apologized for triggering the impeachment process. President Trump, in contrast, declared that his acquittal called for “a day of celebration,” and immediately started firing White House employees who had testified before the House of Representatives. In 2008, then-Israeli Prime Minister Olmert resigned shortly after the police recommended that he should be indicted on corruption charges. In contrast, after Prime Minister Netanyahu was indicted on multiple bribery charges, he infamously said that Israeli citizens should “investigate the investigators,” and even with the trial approaching, Netanyahu shows no signs of considering resignation. Instead, he is currently fiercely promoting legislation to amend several of the Israeli Constitutional Basic Laws in ways that will allow him to remain in office for years to come. These troubling examples illustrate how the resurgence of populism, coupled with increasing polarization, are making it easier for corrupt politicians to evade accountability, even in countries with functional legal and judicial systems. Deep political divisions and strong partisan loyalty are not new, but in the past, it seems there was a degree of overlapping consensus on minimum standards of integrity and propriety, and enough citizens were willing to enforce these standards on a non-partisan basis that leaders would be restrained by political checks—enforced through things like elections and internal party discipline—that could complement judicial processes.

Moreover, leaders like Trump and Netanyahu have acted aggressively to undermine the institutions of justice in order to protect themselves. Both leaders have cavalierly attacked the professionalism and integrity of their country’s law enforcement agencies by suggesting that investigations targeting the leader or his associates are politically motivated “witch hunts.” And both have taken more concrete action to undermine the ordinary operation of the machinery of justice. In the U.S., after his Senate trial acquittal, President Trump intervened to help allies who had been found guilty in cases related to investigations of impropriety by Trump’s 2016 campaign. For example, Trump’s Attorney General ordered the Department of Justice to seek a more lenient sentence for Trump’s former consultant Roger Stone, and Trump pardoned or commuted the sentences of several others in a short and unorthodox process. Netanyahu has been even more aggressive in trying to weaken legal institutions in order to protect himself. After being indicted, Netanyahu fired the Minister of Justice and appointed in her place a low-ranking member of his party with no prior ministerial experience. The new Minister’s first action was to appoint a new Solicitor General—the immediate superior of the prosecution team in Netanyahu’s case–through an irregular process and against the recommendation of the non-partisan Attorney General. (Due to the political deadlock, the Minister is part of a caretaker government and could therefore appoint an interim Solicitor General without the approval of the public committee that the law would otherwise require.) On the eve of Israel’s third round of elections, the new Solicitor General decided—against the opinion of the Attorney General and many others—to launch a police investigation into a firm in which Netanyahu’s chief rival Benny Gantz served as a director (obscuring the fact that Gantz himself is not a suspect). More recently, the Minister of Justice gave the unprecedented order to freeze all non-urgent judicial procedures due to the Covid-19 outbreak—a move that indefinitely postpones Netanyahu’s trial. While the Covid-19 outbreak has disrupted or delayed judicial proceedings in many countries, there was no expert opinion supporting such drastic measures in Israel, especially given that Israel has more per capita testing and ventilators capacity than nearly any country on earth. Even now, when newly detected cases are close to zero, a new date for the trial has yet to be set. Moreover, to avoid a fourth round of elections, given the continued deadlock, Netanyahu is now fiercely and unprecedently promoting legislative amendments to Israel’s Constitutional Basic Laws that would allow him to hold onto office for years to come.

When professional, and traditionally non-partisan, law enforcement agencies find themselves under attack by corrupt populists, these agencies often do not respond, presumably due to the belief that the only way to maintain integrity, legitimacy, and professionalism in the face of such attacks is to refrain from commenting on unfounded claims meant to disparage state attorneys and police investigators. There is much to be said for that approach, but at the same time, the institutions of justice can and should do more to counter the attempts of corrupt populists to undermine those institutions in order to remain in power.

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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

Guest Post: An Austrian Political Corruption Scheme was Caught on Video–But Most Probably Aren’t

Today’s guest post is from Jennifer Kartner, an anticorruption researcher who recently received her Ph.D. in political science from Arizona State University:

On Friday, May 17, 2019, the German newspapers Der Spiegel and the Die Sueddeutsche Zeitung released an explosive video showing two key politicians of the far-right Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), Heinz-Christian Strache and Johann Gudenus, scheming with a woman who claimed to be a wealthy Russian citizen. Their meeting took place in July 2017, a few months before the October 2017 Austrian parliamentary elections. In the video, Strache and Gudenus discuss how, with the help of the woman, they could ensure that the FPÖ wins the upcoming elections. The plan was that the Russian would buy 50% of the Austrian newspaper Die Kronen Zeitung—a newspaper reaching a third of all Austrian news consumers—before the elections, and then she would ensure that the already-populist newspaper would drum up more support for the FPÖ. (Mr. Strache estimates in the video that the newspaper takeover would help push the FPÖ’s expected vote share from 27 to 34 percent.) Once the FPÖ won the election, FPÖ elected officials would return the favor by helping the oligarch win contracts for public construction projects; all she had to do was to establish a construction company that could plausibly compete with the Austrian firm Strabag. The three meeting participants also talked about the possibility of privatizing the Austrian public broadcast station ORF, and Mr. Strache spoke of wanting to build a media landscape “just like Viktor Orbán built in Hungary.” But the deal never actually came together. Die Kronen Zeitung didn’t change owners, the FPÖ came in third in the parliamentary elections and ended up entering into a coalition government with the center-right ÖVP, and Strabag continues to win the majority of public construction contracts in Austria.

The political backlash in response to the publication of the video was swift and severe. An estimated 5,000 people came out to protest on the streets. A day after the publication, Mr. Strache resigned from his Vice-Chancellorship, as well as his other political and party positions, and issued a public apology, and a couple of days after that, all remaining FPÖ ministers in the government were fired or resigned in protest. While Austrian authorities are still debating whether they can charge Mr. Strache for any criminal activities, the public’s response shows that, regardless of the legal ramifications, ordinary citizens view this behavior as corrupt.

But perhaps one of the most disturbing things about this affair is that if the parties had gone through with their plan, and the secret video had never been leaked, neither the authorities nor the public would likely have ever had any reason to suspect a complex corruption scheme behind it. To see this, suppose for the moment that the scheme went ahead as planned. Would anyone have caught on? The answer is likely no: Continue reading

Let Them Speak: Why Brazilian Courts Were Wrong to Bar Press Interviews with an Incarcerated Ex-President

In July 2017, Brazil’s former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (“Lula”) was convicted on corruption and money laundering charges. His appeal was denied in January 2018, and he started serving his sentence in April 2018. Although Lula was in jail, his party (the Workers Party, or PT) attempted to nominate him as its candidate for the October 2018 presidential elections. But pursuant to Brazil’s Clean Records Act (which Lula himself signed into law when he was President), individuals whose convictions have been affirmed on appeal cannot run for elective offices. Though Lula and his defenders argued that he should be allowed to run anyway, his candidacy application was denied; ultimately, as most readers of this blog are likely aware, far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro defeated the PT’s alterative candidate, Fernando Haddad, in last October’s election.

Perhaps less well known, at least outside of Brazil, is the fact that in the run-up to the election, Lula received several invitations from the press to give interviews. Although there is no clear rule on whether prisoners are allowed to give interviews in Brazil, past practice has been to allow the press to reach out those in jail under the authorization of the prison management. After the prison denied several requests by media organizations to interview Lula, those media outlets turned to the courts, asking for the right to interview Lula. The courts said no. The Brazilian Supreme Court, in an order by Supreme Court Justice Luis Fux, issued a preliminary injunction blocking the interviews stating (in a free translation from Portuguese): Continue reading

What, Besides Creating a New Court, Could the International Community Do To Fight Grand Corruption? A Partial List

Last week, Richard Goldstone and Robert Rotberg posted a response to Professor Alex Whiting’s critique of the proposal to create an International Anti-Corruption Court (IACC). Early in their response, Goldstone and Rotberg–both advocates for an IACC–remarked, a bit snarkily, that “[n]otably absent from [Professor Whiting’s] post is a description of what the other effective responses to combating grand corruption might be.”

That struck me as a bit of a cheap shot. Professor Whiting’s post offered a careful, thoughtful argument based on his experience and knowledge of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and similar tribunals, and not every such critical commentary on a given proposal must include a full-blown discussion of alternatives. Still, Goldstone and Rotberg’s implicit challenge to IACC skeptics to articulate alternative responses to grand corruption is worth taking seriously, for two reasons:

  • First, this seems to be a common rhetorical gambit by advocates for an IACC, or for other radical measures that critics deem impractical: Rather than answering and attempting to refute the critics’ specific objections directly, the move is to say, “Well, but this is a huge problem, and there’s no other way to solve it, so poking holes in this proposal is really just an excuse for inaction. This may seem like a long shot, but it’s the only option on the table.”
  • Second, and more charitably to those who make this point, grand corruption is indeed an enormous problem that needs to be addressed. And so even though not every critical commentary on a particular proposal needs to include a full-blown discussion of alternatives, those of us who (like me) are skeptical of deus-ex-machina-style responses to the grand corruption problem ought to make a more concerted effort to lay out an alternative vision for what can be done.

In this post I want to (briefly and incompletely) take up the implicit challenge posed by Goldstone and Rotbert (and, in other writings, by other IACC proponents). If the international community is serious about fighting corruption, what else could it do, besides creating a new international court and compelling all countries to join it and submit to its jurisdiction? When people like Professor Whiting (and I) suggest that lavishing time and attention on the IACC proposal might be a distraction from other, more effective approaches, what do we have in mind? What else could international civil society mobilize behind, besides something like an IACC, to address the problem of grand corruption?

Here are a few items on that agenda: Continue reading

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:

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