Internationalising the public interest

24 October 2010, by Nizar Manek.

This post was originally published on the Guardian website.

The international media must not forget the campaigners paying a high price for exposing corruption in the developing world

The arrest and detention of Algeria’s most prominent anti-corruption campaigner last month attracted wide media attention inside the country, but it received little or no attention internationally in the English-language media.

The reporting silence may be due to linguistic barriers: much of the relevant documentation is in French and Arabic. Perhaps reporting on Algeria’s opaque political system is not seen as newsworthy (no matter the international relevance), or maybe there is simply a lack of interest in the plight of anti-corruption activists outside the developed world.There is now widespread recognition that pervasive corruption is a violation of basic human rights and a severe impediment to development.

Article 1 of the 1998 UN declaration on human rights defenders asserts the right of everyone “to promote and to strive for the protection and realisation of human rights and fundamental freedoms at the national and international levels”, and article 13 of the 2005 convention against corruption guarantees public participation in anti-corruption efforts. But in fighting against corruption, human rights defenders often have their own rights violated through harassment, physical attacks, smears, changing legal requirement and blocking of their funding sources.

Earlier this month, a councillor in the Brazilian city of Analândia was shot dead at his home by two men who arrived on a motorbike – another case left unreported by the international press. The councillor, Evaldo José Nalin, was investigating several cases of fraud and overbilling. Threats had been reported to the Analândia authorities prior to his murder. Another activist was shot in the head and left blind in one eye.

The problem is not confined to Algeria and Brazil: where special interests capture legal and political elites, the politically motivated suppression of anti-corruption activists is not uncommon.

The Algerian case involved Dr Djilali Hadjadj, the well-respected president of L’Association Algérienne de Lutte contre la Corruption (Algerian Association to Combat Corruption), the main local organisation fighting corruption and embezzlement of public funds. It followed a string of corruption investigations that included state-owned hydrocarbons company Sonatrach, which holds an automatic 51% share in all new energy products and which accounts for 97% of total exports from Algeria.

Hadjadj’s arrest closely shadowed his publication of a number of articles in Le Soir d’Algérie which denounced both the Algerian president and a new anti-corruption office for its lack of independence. On 29 August, a week before his arrest, the daily newspaper El-Watan published an interview with Hadjadj in which he complained about an absence of political will at the highest levels to put an end to corruption.

Some saw the Hadjadj arrest as politically motivated and undermining the credibility of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who had made an election pledge last year to deal with corruption and establish a legacy for genuine reform.

It was only after his arrest that Hadjadj discovered he had been tried in his absence earlier this year and sentenced to three years in prison for supposedly falsifying medical leave certificates.

Though he has now been released with a six-month suspended sentence and €500 fine, the Hadjadj case must be regarded an emblem of a wider, more systemic, problem. His release was a result only of the “multiplier effect” initiated by a network of civil society groups putting pressure on the authorities.

In Morocco, Chekib El-Khiari – a journalist and founder of a local human rights organisation, Association du Rif des Droits de l’Homme (Association of Human Rights in the Rif) – is now serving a three-year prison sentence. This came after he spoke on international television about high-ranking Moroccan officials being involved in a drug-trafficking ring.

Like Hadjadj in Algeria, Khiari was sentenced for a trivial offence – opening up a bank account and transferring money without proper authorisation (this related to the opening a bank account in Spain to cash a €250 cheque from the Spanish newspaper, El Pais) and for “undermining or insulting a public institution”.

Often there is no adequate protection for anti-corruption activists in line with international standards – and once imprisoned, they are easily forgotten. That is the situation in numerous cases of less high-profile activists whose cause has not been taken up by NGOs or the international press.

International media scrutiny cannot be shut down, but these problems are often left unreported. International media outlets should make a clear shift to internationalising the public interest – particularly in supporting the international protection of human rights in countries where investigating and publishing on corruption faces censorship, imprisonment and state-sponsored killing. Reporters need to monitor these cases and engage in cross-border investigations where unacceptable restrictions are imposed on the local media.