Media -- in anti-corruption fight By Rickey Singh
Guyana Chronicle
August 4, 2002

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THE media has long been recognised as a vital partner in fostering social, economic and political developments in the reconstruction of post-colonial Caribbean societies.

Consequently, it is well-placed to expose corruption, wherever it exists, as part of a social responsibility function.

"Democracy" and "good governance" that requires transparency and accountability to help guard against the harm resulting from corrupt practices, are now very much the focus of the United Nations and the Organisation of American States and it was a matter of time that agencies of the world body involve the media in a more concerted effort to confront corruption.

One such UN initiative took place in Barbados last week when the United Nations Drug Control Programme (UNDCP), sponsored a two-day symposium for the benefit of Caribbean media personnel to consider -- as part of a series of such efforts in the wider international community --on how best to enhance the role of the media in confronting corruption.

The facilitator was Roderick Macdonell, the World Bank Institute's Consultant in the Governance and Finance Division, who has acquired a rich experience from his field work in a number of countries of the developing world.

The evils of corruption have been plaguing societies across the globe for a long, long time.

But drug-trafficking and its related criminal partner, money laundering, have significantly contributed to making it more of a challenge today in the Caribbean region than has ever been the experience prior to the dawn of political independence.

As the UNDCP's resident representative in Barbados, Flavio Mirella, was to tell the formal opening session, an estimated US$3.2B in illegal drugs transited the Caribbean region in 2000 with some ten per cent, or US$320M, going for varying acts of corruption that also included personnel from customs, immigration and security forces in a number of national jurisdictions.

Now the UNDCP, which has been mandated by the UN to take a lead role in the preparation of a draft Convention against Corruption, is hoping, as Mirella said, that the Caribbean region will show a more active and sustained interest in the shaping of that draft to gain national legal endorsement.

The opportunity for so doing will be the forthcoming third session of the Ad Hoc Committee for the Negotiation of a Convention against Corruption (CNCC), scheduled for Vienna from September 30 to October 11 this year.

At the second session of the Committee only three Caribbean Community (CARICOM) states were represented.

The hope is that the Community Secretariat will now become actively involved in promoting a respectable and more informed presence for the third session in Vienna.

Last week, in sharing the opening session with her UNDCP colleague Mirella, and the former President of the Caribbean Development Bank, Sir Neville Nicholls, Rosina Wiltshire, the Barbados-based UNDP Regional Representative for the Eastern Caribbean, noted:

"Corruption can be found across the globe at all levels of endeavour in industrial and developing countries -- from small bribes paid for drivers' licences to larger pay-outs for the award of lucrative public service contracts..."

Participants at the symposium felt that a most effective way for the media to crusade against all forms of corruption -- bribery, fraud, embezzlement, conflict of interest, political corruption, nepotism and extortion, misuse of power for sex and other gains -- is for the media itself to ensure "clean hands" in confirming to its "watch dog" responsibility as so-called "gate-keeper" of society.

Preparing for such a confrontation, therefore, extended to a recognition of the need for training and equipping media practitioners with the required tools and facilities to effectively confront corruption and generate interest in the adoption of national and international standards.

Codes of ethics for the guidance of media practitioners, mission statements that enable better appreciation of why media enterprises exist, proper understanding of acceptable national and international criteria in combating corruption in all sectors of society, not just government, were considered by the symposium as essential.

Unfortunately, some of the participants expected for the symposium did not show up.

But a set of recommendations were agreed upon for forwarding to regional media houses with the hope that they could become actively involved in the process of confronting corruption.

The symposium took note of the well justified concern of media owners and managers about anachronistic and oppressive libel laws that exist in CARICOM states and territories, as part of the legacy of colonialism.

This was recognised as a serious impediment in reporting on public corruption and in accessing information to better inform the public about the policies and practices of both the public and private sectors in the promotion of a more open and healthy society.

Overt and covert pressures often experienced by the media in reporting on corruption in the Caribbean were considered by the symposium.

In this context, the support of the participating representatives of the CARICOM Secretariat was requested in ensuring that a pro-active approach be adopted on the recommendations emerging from the two-day exercise.

Specifically, for the Legal and Institutional Development Division of the Secretariat to expedite its work programme for the presentation of a draft report on how to evolve consensus at a regional level on new and relevant defamation laws.

Further, that the media owners and Ministers responsible for Information and Communications seek to take advantage of the guidelines of Freedom of Information Act as exist in a few of the CARICOM states -- Jamaica and Belize for example, with others, like Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago in draft form -- to lobby for such legislative mechanism in their own national jurisdiction to strengthen the fight against corruption, and more.

In addressing the symposium, former CDB President Nicholls commended the UNDCP's initiative with objectives that included the raising of awareness among the Caribbean media owners and practitioners about the effects of corruption; the value of relevant training at the national/regional level; building a regional network of journalists covering corruption-related issues, as well as in informing the public on international conventions and other initiatives against corruption.

Nicholls identified as contributing factors in the public sector -- while noting that the private sector stands equally guilty of costly corrupt practices -- inappropriate government and development policies; poorly conceived and managed programmes; weak institutions; lack of adequate checks and balances; an underdeveloped civil society; weak or corrupt judicial systems; inadequate pay for civil servants and a severe lack of accountability and transparency.

Now, in this post-Enron phase of deep and widespread corporate corruption in the USA, the latest example extending to include the giant media conglomerate, AOL/Time-Warner, we await the outcome to the ideas and recommendations generated at the symposium for action involving the media, government and private sector, with assistance, as may be needed, from the relevant UN agencies.