The roots of corruption are often grounded in a country’s social and cultural history, political and economic development, bureaucratic traditions and policies. Corruption tends to thrive when institutions are weak and economic policies distort the marketplace.
Corruption distorts economic and social development, by engendering wrong choices and by encouraging competition in bribery rather than in the quality and price of goods and services, and, all too often, it means that the poorest must pay for the corruption of their own officials.
It is a fact that if corruption is not reined in, it will proliferate. Once a pattern of successful bribes is institutionalised, corrupt officials have an enticement to demand hefty bribes, promoting a "culture" of illegality that consequently causes market inefficiency as Nepal is facing now.
Corruption takes place at the intersection of public and private sectors, when public office is abused by an official accepting, soliciting or extorting a bribe. As a single transaction, corruption occurs where there is a meeting of opportunity and inclination. The extent of corruption depends on the amount of monopoly power and discretionary power that an official exercises.
Monopoly power is large in highly regulated economies, whereas discretionary power is often large in developing countries and transition economies like Nepal where administrative rules and regulations are often poorly defined and which are plagued by a weak rule of law. Accountability may also be weak, either as a result of poorly defined ethical standards of public service, weak administrative and financial systems and ineffective watchdog agencies.
A free media, along with an effective parliament and an independent judiciary, is one of the prerequisites for good governance. With regard to curbing corruption, the media has a dual role: to raise public awareness about corruption and to investigate and report incidences of corruption in a professional and ethical manner.
In addition to having access to information, media persons ought to be able to muster courage to investigate and report without any fear of reprisals or intimidation by the corrupt. But contrary to this, media persons have been harassed, assaulted, arrested and even killed for exposing corruption.
The role of the Nepalese media in the post 1990s has been praiseworthy in exposing scams related to Dhamija, Lauda Air and most recently the networking business of Unity Life International, but the buck doesn’t stop here. The media should be more vibrant and vigilant during the political transition and post-conflict scenario, which is considered a fertile ground for corruption. Therefore, the media is crucial to creating and maintaining an atmosphere in public life that discourages fraud and corruption.
Successful anti-corruption programmes are dependent on knowledge and information including leadership plus collective action. The importance of information and involvement of free media including civil society against corruption can neither be downplayed nor be denied.
The role of the media is vital in promoting good governance and controlling corruption. It not only raises public awareness about corruption, its causes, consequences and possible remedies but also investigates and reports incidences of corruption and irregularity. The effectiveness of the media, in turn, depends on access to information and freedom of expression, as well as a professional and ethical cadre of investigative journalists.
Additionally, such issues as private versus public ownership of the media, the need for improved protection of journalists who unearth corruption and media regulation are critical.
The media can act as a force against corruption in ways that are both tangible and intangible. The tangible ways in which the media performs this function include those in which some sort of visible outcome can be attributed to a particular news story. For instance, the launching of investigation by the authorities, the scrapping of a law or policy that fosters a climate for corruption, the impeachment or forced resignation of a crooked politician, the firing of an official, the launching of judicial proceedings, the issuing of public recommendations by a watchdog body, among others.
Intangible effects, by contrast, can be characterised as those checks on corruption which arise from the broader social climate of enhanced political pluralism, enlivened public debate and a heightened sense of accountability among politicians, public bodies and institutions that are inevitably the by-product of a hard-hitting, independent media sector.
The tangible ways in which the media can serve to curb corruption can take a variety of forms. Most spectacular among them is when corrupt bureaucrats or public office-holders are impeached, prosecuted or forced to resign after their misdeeds are exposed. However, the media also acts directly to curb corruption in other, less spectacular but, arguably, equally important ways.
Reporting, for example, may prompt public bodies to launch formal investigations into allegations of corruption. Furthermore, the media can disseminate findings of public anti-corruption bodies, thus reinforcing the legitimacy of these bodies and reducing the ease with which interested parties who hold power can meddle in their work.
Conversely, when the media unearths flaws and even corruption within the various bodies of the state such as the judiciary, police and anti-corruption task forces, corruption is put on checks. If the resulting public pressure leads to a reform of those bodies, the long-term effectiveness and potential of the media to act as a counterweight against corruption is strengthened.
Successful strategies to curb corruption will have to simultaneously seek to reduce an official’s monopoly power through market-oriented reforms, discretionary power through administrative reforms and enhance public accountability by empowering watchdog agencies such as the media and civil society. A critical element of a country’s anti-corruption strategy or programme should be an effective media.
The strategies should comprise a system of checks and balances, designed to manage conflicts of interest in the public sector and limit situations in which conflicts of interest arise or have a negative impact on the common good. They embody a comprehensive package of reform, addressing corruption in the public sector through government processes of leadership codes, organisational change, and through civil society participation in the democratic
process of an oversight mechanism against corruption.
(This article belongs to P Bhattarai.)