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The anti-corruption agenda is in danger of forgetting its principal asset: An independent media

James Deane's picture

Sitting in a large, rain pattered, tent in the grounds of Marlborough House in London last week, I had to admit to a mixture of frustration and admiration.  Admirably hosted by the Commonwealth Secretariat, the conference was the civil society and business gathering prefacing the major Anti-Corruption Summit organised by UK Prime Minister, David Cameron. 
First, the admiration. Both the outcomes of the Summit and the immense energy by civil society and other leaders in informing and influencing it, are impressive.  Registries of beneficial ownership, fresh agreements on information sharing, new commitments requiring disclosure of property ownership, new signatories to the Open Government Partnership and open contracting Initiatives, the commitment from leaders of corruption affected countries and much else on display this week suggests real innovation, energy and optimism in advancing the anticorruption agenda.
The frustration stems from a concern that, while there is much that is new being agreed, one of the principal and most effective existing assets for checking corruption has barely featured in the discussion so far – and it is an asset which is increasingly imperilled.
It isn’t just people like myself who point to the critical role of an independent media.  As I’ve argued in a new working paper, when any serious review of the evidence of what actually works in reducing corruption is undertaken, it is the presence of an independent media that features consistently.  In contrast, only a few of the anti-corruption measures that have been supported by development agencies to date have been effective. 

With a few notable exceptions, the international development system has a really poor record of supporting independent media.  Just 2% of all funding dedicated to improving governance or reducing conflict is allocated to support to independent media, according to the OECD and US National Endowment for Democracy.
Why does this matter?  Mainly because independent media is in increasingly serious trouble, especially in fragile states, and one of the reasons it is so imperilled is that those who do not want to be held to account are investing great effort in ensuring that they can own, influence, or control the media.  This outside pressure on media – whether traditional or social – is not just coming from governments in the developing world. It is also coming from political, factional, commercial, religious and other interests.  In short, while development actors have generally been slow to understand the need for media support, those who are in a position to most harm development have often been sharp, agile and effective in neutering a set of institutions they understand to represent a threat to their interests.
I am not simply making the case for more financial support to the media.  I am arguing that the development system needs to get better at providing effective support to media.  That involves understanding what works and what doesn’t work in different contexts.  In my paper, I discuss some of the approaches which might have most impact and suggest that while some obvious investments – such as support to investigative journalism – are important, they are not a panacea in many fragile states where the safety risks facing journalists who call out corruption and other abuses of authority are often so high.  Other strategies, such as supporting media to empower people to ask questions of their leaders and create a strong culture of accountability, can also be effective.  And, while digital and new technologies are another obvious focus, the actual impact of investments in these areas have, as the latest World Development Report noted, been mixed – so we need to get the right mix of digital and analogue.
Finally, I argue that the strong link being made by many at the Anti-Corruption Summit between violent extremism and corruption provides an added incentive for development agencies to understand and support independent media.  One of the greatest threats facing independent media right now are laws and other measures designed to muzzle journalists and media outlets, many of which are passed in the name of deterring terrorism or protecting national security.  Given the effectiveness of media as a deterrent to corruption and given the growing evidence that corruption is a key driver of radicalisation and extremism, such measures are likely to be counterproductive in the long term.
I don’t pretend that issues of support to media are easy.  They are, as this website has often argued, complex, political and difficult.  But given the political and economic challenges independent media so often face, it will not be sustained in fragile states without greater support from the development sector.  The media needs to be accorded a much higher priority in future governance, accountability, fragility and anti-corruption debates.  My fear is that we are losing one of the greatest assets available to curb corruption just when we need it most.

James Deane is Director of Policy and Learning at BBC Media Action, the BBC’s international development charity.  His views should not be taken to represent those of the BBC itself or any of the funders to the charity.

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