Geo-Economics and Politics

Why the fight against corruption is this generation's defining issue

A memorial in Malta following the assassination of investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in October 2017

A memorial in Malta following the assassination of investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in October 2017 Image: REUTERS/Darrin Zammit Lupi

Isabel Cane
Project Lead, Partnering Against Corruption Initiative (PACI), World Economic Forum Geneva
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Amid talk of a multiconceptual international order, where hopes for lasting cooperation are replaced by permanent rivalry, young people around the world are remarkably united on the most pressing issue affecting their own countries. It could hold the key to reducing global challenges more broadly.

The World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers community identified corruption as their principal concern in a recent survey, linking it to a broad range of intersecting global issues, such as growing inequality and unaccountable governments. While war is declared on everything from terrorism to national debt, this generation believes that the defining issue of this era is something else: corruption, and the way it eats away at their future. And yet one of the most important defences our societies have against corruption is under threat.

War metaphors are overused. But it is difficult to describe the global uptick in violence against the press as anything other than a battle for freedom from corruption and the dangerous ideologies that seek to make it look respectable. The recent developments in the case of Jamal Khashoggi, who was already living in exile, illustrate the risks journalists face.

From journalists tracking religious extremists in India to reporters uncovering crime and corruption in the Philippines, the people the anti-corruption movement rely on for information are increasingly being silenced.

In countries cursed with multiple intersecting challenges such as terrorism, severe economic inequality and illegal drug or human trafficking, it can be easy to attribute the murder of journalists to broader structures of violence. Yet two assassinations in the heart of the EU, long considered a safe haven for press freedom, have shattered some deeply ingrained assumptions about where and why most journalists are killed. Data collected by the Committee to Protect Journalists shows that 93% of journalists murdered in 2017 were reporters covering local politics and corruption in their home countries.

There is a reason why Yale historian Timothy Snyder has described investigative journalists as “the heroes of our time”, and why The Post star Meryl Streep, in a strident defence of the free press, declared that “true bravery is the Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, blown up in her car for reporting on the Panama Papers”. It is increasingly investigative reporters, not law enforcement agencies, who are on the front lines in the fight against graft and poor governance. The case of Daphne Caruana Galizia, assassinated on 16 October 2017 near her country home in Malta, has become a defining example of why press freedom matters in efforts to combat corruption around the world, promote transparency and safeguard democracy.

The consequences for transparency and political accountability of a spike in violence against investigative journalists were laid bare in European Commission President Juncker’s last State of the Union Address:

“Europe must always be a place where freedom of the press is sacrosanct. Too many of our journalists are intimidated, attacked, murdered. There is no democracy without a free press.”

Maybe it is this threat to their freedom that young people perceive so clearly, and why they continue to call on decision-makers to address the issue, demanding harsher penalties for corrupt public officials.

To rebuild trust in systems of government, states can do more to protect journalists who are scrutinising them. Not unlike the inverted U-curve popularized by Malcolm Gladwell, press freedom is instrumental in keeping corruption in check up to a certain limit. When that limit is reached, corruption begins to keep the press in check, sending the country on a journey of increased instability and political graft, and often reduced press freedom.

In Bulgaria, where an investigative reporter was found raped and murdered in October 2018, press freedom has slipped from 36th place in 2006 to 111th in 2018, according to the annual index compiled by Reporters without Borders. Slovakia press freedom has fallen ten places to 27th. Malta has plunged 18 places to 65th. All three countries are also consistently at the bottom of Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index for the European Union.

Caruana Galizia had been threatened and harassed for most of her 30-year career, during which she documented the frightening way in which populism and corruption had begun to dovetail. This pattern can be witnessed across southern and eastern Europe, where efforts to shed light on political corruption are increasingly met with extreme retaliation.

Jan Kuciak, the young Slovakian reporter probing corruption and money laundering before he was murdered alongside his fiancée in March 2018, was killed despite reporting death threats to the local police. Contrast Caruana Galizia and Kuciak’s cases with that of Italian journalist Paolo Borrometi, who has so far survived mafia assassination plots, and the power and limits of investigative journalism in battling corruption are suddenly clearer.

When corruption becomes so pervasive that it undermines the effectiveness of national authorities, journalists begin to die. Their murder betrays the institutional failure that they died trying to uncover.

In this grim week, the first anniversary of Caruana Galizia’s death, it is important to remember what the sacrifice of modern day heroes like her teach us: that there are journalists willing to lay down everything in our common fight against corruption. But unless we do more to prop up law enforcement authorities, the war, along with our bravest voices, will be lost. And this isn’t another martial metaphor; this fight is a real one.

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