Watching the watch dog of the nation has become a mortifying need
Wednesday this week (December 09) marked the International Anti-corruption Day with a nationwide campaign on eradicating corruption. Interestingly all mobile phone users, too, received a common text message incorporating a pledge “I declare: I shall not pay a bribe, I shall not take a bribe and I shall report / give info on corrupt practices.”
Sri Lanka, according to the global anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International, is still performing better compared to many of its Asian neighbours as far as corruption is concerned. In fact both India and Sri Lanka are the best performing countries in this index in South Asia ranked 85th among 175 countries.
When talking about corruption, the first sector of society that comes to anyone’s mind is politicians. They are the most visible and noticeable characters in the domain of corruption.
In fact Sri Lanka should be glad to reach its current position in the global anti-corruption index when the poor level of governance we experienced over the past decade is considered. Corruption and nepotism became a gigantic octopus that encroached into every segment of society – from top to bottom. This does not mean that President Rajapaksa initiated it, rather he fully enjoyed and benefited the maximum out of what had been initiated by his predecessors.
All four pillars of democracy were severely affected by this epidemic. There is no need to specify the level of corruption of the executive; it was limitless.If the stories we hear are correct, the mere number of complaints of corruption against the ‘top family’ amounts to more than 700. How many years would it take to resolve these cases given the natural and unavoidable tendency of the law’s delays?
Then came the legislature which was predominantly guided by a corrupt executive. There is no need for further explanations. There was a blanket approval for ‘Yes men’ to determine their own conduct, irrespective of morality or ethical standards. When we refer to the legislature, it is not confined to Parliament – but its allied institutions as well.The high profile cases that came to light during recent months – specifically the biggest ever bribery case at the Customs and several corruption cases of senior police officers were significant events in the fight against the menace. No doubt, the tough lady who heads the bribery office would leave no stone unturned and no case unresolved. She has proved her competency and won public trust, I believe. The hurdle she is facing is the lack of resources in the face of mounting complaints against big wigs – both former and present.
The judiciary was not left alone. The interventions of the previous regime in the country’s judicial system not only deprived the trust among its own population, but it extended to Geneva as well. Thus, the hybrid systems were proposed. It went to an extent where the winning President Maithripala Sirisena refusing to take oaths before the incumbent chief justice of the country. Getting him out of the job was a ‘mafia style operation.’ To be fair, these allegations of judicial corruption should not be confined to the Rajapaksa regime, . We still remember how ‘Ravaya’ reported the appointment of Sarath Silva as chief justice by President Chandrika Kumaratunga by publishing the picture up-side-down on its front page with a caption “Adhikaranaye Malagama” (the funeral of the judiciary).
The fourth pillar of democracy is the media – the watchdog of society with no other watchdog’s eyes on it. Thus, we hear less about corruption within the media that however exposes others.
As in other sectors, corruption within the media sector spans from top to bottom with very few exceptions. Corporate ownership – either state or private –would always enjoy economic or political manoeuvring while a few would engage in converting black money into white through media businesses. This is not a unique feature to Sri Lanka, but a global phenomenon where a significant portion of the media is owned by cronies. Many owners would use their media outlets as political or economic tools, though they continue to make financial losses. Here I must say fact that there are a few exceptions that engage in genuine media business.
When training journalists on practising ethics, independence and accountability are among the most cardinal issues that are discussed; but their practicality is in question. This includes both editors and journalists. From another perspective, eradicating corruption from a profession which is not paid well is a tedious task, but it is not a blanket excuse to engage in corrupt practices that could extend from a cap or a T-shirt as a gift at a press conference to massive financial deals – either to publish or not to publish a story. Such events could take place at provincial as well as headquarter levels.
There is an interesting advertisement by one of the Sinhala radio channels.It starts with a dialogue where a politician is receiving a bribe and then goes on to say that even paying cash to listeners is a direct mode of bribing. Several radio channels offer cash – not as a prize but as a gift – to their listeners in a bid to promote the respective channels and provide extensive publicity to cash receiving events. We should ask the tough lady at the Bribery Commission whether this could be considered a bribe, and if so we need to take stern action against such misconduct of the Fourth Estate.
Another grey area that needs thorough scrutiny within the broadcast sector is the ‘rating’ madness. To my mind this is an extremely vulnerable sector that is susceptible to corruption. The monitoring system could be held answerable to its interpretations of the results of a few hundred samples as ‘indicative’ of the collective behaviour of millions of media recipients. Such so-called research entities dominate and probably manipulate the market as well. A thorough academic research based on empirical evidence is a must to spot the loopholes and possible corrupt practices within this system and to propose alternatives to counter them.
Thus, media should not be spared from any anti-corruption campaigns. In fact we cannot think of a dynamic democracy without cleaning the media landscape from unethical practices. We need a system to watch the watchdog.