Research analysis by Coralie Pring, Jon Vrushi and Roberto Kukutschka
To mark the release of Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index 2017, we analysed corruption levels around the world and looked at how they relate to civil liberties – specifically, the ability of citizens to speak out in defence of their interests and the wider public good.
Fraying civic space
As journalists and activist groups are coming under mounting pressure from governments around the world (see here), evidence sheds new light on the vital importance of civil society organisations (CSOs) and independent media in anti-corruption efforts. Yet, CSOs working on governance and human rights issues are subject to ever-greater restrictions on their operations (see here), while attacks on journalists are on the rise in many parts of the world. Such crackdowns are not only deeply concerning in their own right, but they also add to an environment in which corrupt public officials, shady businesses and organised criminals are able to act with impunity.
Freedom of association and expression in the fight against corruption
As Transparency International marks its 25th anniversary this year, our experience over the last quarter-century shows that curbing corruption requires more than just introducing well-designed laws. Corrupt individuals have proven very adept at finding ways to get around formal constraints, which is why grassroots and bottom-up approaches to fighting corruption tend to be more sustainable in the long run than isolated institutional and legal reform (see here, here, and here). Often, well-intentioned laws are poorly enforced and institutions lack the ‘teeth’ to make anti-corruption efforts truly effective. Civil society and media are essential in applying pressure and keeping governments honest and accountable (see here and here).
Specifically, freedom of association, including the ability of people to form groups and influence public policy, is vital to anti-corruption. CSOs play a key role in denouncing violations of rights or speaking out against breaches of law. Similarly, a free and independent media serves an important function in investigating and reporting incidences of corruption. The voices of both civil society and journalists put a spotlight on bad actors and can help trigger action by law enforcement and the court system.
Civil liberties in retreat? What the data shows
To further examine these relationships, we explored how four leading measurements of press freedom and civil society space relate to our index of public sector corruption. In doing so, we found evidence to suggest that those countries that respect press freedom, encourage open dialogue, and allow for full participation of CSOs in the public arena tend to be more successful at controlling corruption. Conversely, countries that repress journalists, restrict civil liberties and seek to stifle civil society organisations typically score lower on the CPI.
The relationship between press freedom and corruption is further underlined by data provided by the Committee to Protect Journalists, which documents cases where journalists are killed while reporting on a story. Since 2012, 368 journalists died while pursing stories and 96 per cent of those deaths were in countries with corrupt public sectors, ie where CPI scores are below 45. Moreover, one in five journalists killed worldwide were investigating corruption-related stories. In Mexico, which dropped by six points on the CPI since 2014, moving from a score of 35 to 29, six journalists were killed in 2017 alone.
Hungary and Brazil are key examples of the relationship between civil rights and corruption. Recently, Hungary enacted a series of measures to restrict press freedom. In addition, recent draft legislation in Hungary threatens to restrict NGOs and revoke their charitable status. We see in our latest CPI that their score has declined from 55 in 2012 to 45 in 2017.
Similarly, Brazil’s CPI score also declined from 43 in 2014 to 37 in 2017. Civil society’s ability to participate in decision making in the country has reduced recently, and the country is also a dangerous place for journalists, with 20 killed in the last six years.
In contrast, Côte D’Ivoire, has experienced greater civic participation in politics and progress on human rights in recent years. We find that the country has also improved its CPI score from 27 in 2013 to 36 in 2017.
Despite this, some countries with relatively good CPI scores continue to impose crippling restrictions on the media and civil society groups. Such countries are, however, outliers. The overwhelming body of evidence from both academia and the frontline indicates that the protection of journalistic and civil freedoms is a prerequisite for any long-term reduction in a country’s level of corruption.
Conclusion and recommendations
The relationship between civil liberties and corruption cuts both ways. Academic research points to a vicious cycle, where widespread corruption chips away at remaining civic space and targets groups that pose a challenge to authority. At the same time, the inability of citizens to hold their governments accountable contributes to even greater abuse.
Our experience of working with more than 100 chapters around the world shows that CSOs, grassroots movements and journalists are vital for improving the quality of governance. However, respect for civil liberties, such as freedom of expression and association, is only one component of an effective anti-corruption agenda. These elements prove all the more powerful when combined with genuine political will on the part of governments to tackle problems at their root.
 Freedom of the press (as measured by Reporters without Borders); Freedom of expression (as measured by Varieties of Democracy Project); Freedom of association, i.e. whether people are free to join civic organisations (as measured by World Justice Project); Space for CSOs to participate in policy-making (as measured by Varieties of Democracy Project). The indicators are different to the corruption indicators used to calculate the CPI scores.