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The role of the media in fighting corruption


The media (including social media) has an important role in the fight against corruption as it can demand accountability and transparency from the public and private sectors. There are several studies that have demonstrated the correlation between press freedom and corruption (Bolsius, 2012; Brunetti and Weder, 2003; Chowdhury, 2004; Fardig, Andersson, and Oscarsson, 2011). The media provides information on public sector corruption where governmental activity is opaque by design or by default. The media, and in particular investigative journalism, plays a crucial role in exposing corruption to public scrutiny and fighting against impunity. This is set out in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report on the role of the media and investigative journalism (2018). A prominent example of international cooperation activities that brought fraud and corruption to the attention of the public and law enforcement authorities is offered by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) publication Reporting on Corruption: A Resource Tool for Governments and Journalists (2014) examines and elucidates good practices in the journalism profession and in legislation promoting broader freedoms of opinion and expression that can support anti-corruption efforts.

In many countries, the media confronts unethical people or practices and may often be the catalyst for a criminal or other investigation. For instance, in South Africa, news reports on large-scale corruption and clientelism at the highest levels prompted the Office of the Public Protector (an independent ombudsman) to investigate the allegations. This investigation led to the 2014 Nkandla report and the 2016 State Capture report which found unethical and illegal activity by the then President Jacob Zuma, which contributed to his decision to resign in February 2018. In Bulgaria, in 2019, a joint investigation by Radio Free Europe and the NGO Anti-Corruption Fund revealed that many high-level politicians and public officials had acquired luxury apartments at prices far below the market rates. This investigation led to the resignation of the then Justice Minister, three vice-ministers, several MPs as well as the head of the Bulgarian Anti-Corruption Agency. These types of outcome have been described by Stapenhurst (2000) as the "tangible effects" of the media's fight against corruption, while the "intangible effects" of media anti-corruption efforts include "enhanced political pluralism, enlivened political debate and a heightened sense of accountability among politicians, institutions and public bodies".

Media reports on corruption have also taken centre stage at the global level. A case that demonstrates the importance of journalists and the media in detecting incidents of corruption is the Mossack Fonseca Papers case (widely known as the Panama Papers case). In 2015, an anonymous source leaked documents from the Panama-based firm Mossack Fonseca to the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung. The newspaper investigated the documents with the help of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and published over 11.5 million documents containing information about secret trusts, financial transactions with tax havens, and more than 200,000 offshore entities (the online database Offshoreleaks, created by ICIJ, provides open access to all papers leaked from Mossack Fonseca). The release of these documents has led to lawsuits in numerous countries around the world. Over USD 1.2 billion have been recovered in countries including Iceland, Uruguay, Mexico, New Zealand, Belgium and the United Kingdom. See the list of countries that have launched investigations as a result of the Mossack Fonseca Papers and how much money they have recovered here. For further information also consider this interactive overview by the ICIJ on the impact that the exposure of the papers had on corruption around the world.

Stapenhurst (2000) distinguishes tangible (direct) and intangible (indirect) ways in which the media assists in detecting corruption. Examples of tangible effects of exposing corruption in the media include: fuelling public outrage at corruption in government, forcing the impeachment and resignation of a corrupt official, prompting formal investigations into corruption, and spurring citizen pressure for the reform of corrupt States. An example of an intangible effect of the media on corruption is raising public awareness about weak economic competition, and the fact that more competition could increase accountability and create incentives for public officials to investigate corruption (Stapenhurst, 2000).

The extent to which journalists can assist in detecting corruption depends on whether the media is free and independent. For media reporting and journalism to play an effective role in corruption detection, the media has to be free and independent. Freedom of information (FOI) laws are important in determining the role of the media in detecting corruption. Further, there must be legislative frameworks in place to protect journalists and their sources from unfounded lawsuits, recrimination and victimization (OECD, 2018). On the extreme end of the scale, whistle-blowers and journalists have been killed for their role in exposing corruption (see here and here). UNODC has developed the following resource tool for reporting on corruption for journalists and governments. For a broad discussion of ethics, integrity and the media, see Module 10 of the E4J University Module Series on Integrity and Ethics.

Despite the importance and utility of the media in the fight against corruption, media ownership may undermine anti-corruption efforts, especially where politicians, business leaders or corrupt elites unduly influence the media. In such cases, media reporting may be biased and used to manipulate citizens (Freille, Harque, and Kneller, 2007). Investigative journalists have reported intimidation, attempts to undermine their professional credibility and political represions. Moreover, journalists often receive death threats and some have been killed because of their investigations on corruption (OECD, 2018). According to a report of the Committee to Protect Journalists, 34 journalists were murdered in 2018 alone. Freelance journalists are more exposed to violence than other journalists, probably because they lack adequate institutional protection (OECD, 2018) and are also more likely to take higher risk jobs. Moreover, private media owners or the State may heavily interfere with freedom of expression.

Social media is considered more widely accessible, and more resistant to top-down control compared to traditional media. Social media fights corruption by providing information in the form of analysis, commentary and advocacy and through investigations and crowdsourcing. Social media provides an outlet for so-called "citizen journalism" as there are several social media platforms where citizens can provide information on corruption, which is then investigated by government authorities or journalists. Social media may also mobilize public opinion in a way that increases citizen engagement with particular issues (Robertson, 2018), and, on reaching a certain level, this can lead to uprisings and changes in government, as has occurred in several countries such as Tunisia, Egypt and Armenia through activism on Twitter (Enikolopov, Petrova, and Sonin, 2018). Notwithstanding the positive effect that social media can have in engaging citizens in the fight against corruption, it should be taken into consideration that the contemporary mass media platforms are vulnerable to abuse, which can lead to the sustained spread of disinformation among citizens. In particular, the growing prevalence of false information spread via social media - known as "fake news" - has become a major threat to public trust in both mainstream and independent media outlets. Fake news not only disseminates incorrect information, but is also often used with malicious intent, for example to discredit political adversaries by casting doubt on their integrity through weaponized reports alleging corrupt conduct, or to discredit journalists who report cases of corruption accurately (Kossow, 2018). Countering such abuses requires the coordinated efforts of the whole society, which again brings to mind the collective action problems mentioned earlier. For additional discussion on citizen journalism and social media platforms see Module 10 of the E4J University Module Series on Integrity and Ethics.

Next: Access to information: a condition for citizen participation
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