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In South Africa, Organizers Combine Old and New Media to Take on Corruption

BY Anna Therese Day | Monday, May 6 2013

Screenshot from anti-corruption campaign video.

In March South Africa made international headlines when Johannesburg residents caught local police on video dragging and beating a taxicab driver to death. The video, captured by mobile devices, shows Johannesburg police dragging a handcuffed man behind a vehicle. After its release, the video went viral on the web, igniting local and international outcry and fueling local investigations.

“One of the most interesting elements of the case is that the police knew they were being filmed,” said David Lewis, Executive Director of Corruption Watch, a South African anti-corruption NGO. “The residents told them ‘don’t do this, we have it on video!’ and the police continued. This is a demonstration of the total impunity that they [the police] feel.”

Unfortunately for South African citizens, this case is not the first time their country has gained international notoriety for corruption. According to Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index 2012, South Africa received a score of 4.4 out of 10, with 10 being the least corrupt and 0 the most. Although South Africa is not among the worst of its sub-Saharan African counterparts, its score has slipped over the past few years, and, according to The Victims of Crime Survey 2011 in South Africa, over two-thirds of those households who experienced corruption fell victim to bribe-solicitation for traffic fines or from policing. Furthermore, although the state has sought to stamp out police corruption internally, the Institute for Security Studies’ Protector or Predator 2011 report revealed that the number of corruption-related complaints far exceeds the number of police arrests or convictions, as illustrated by the visual on page 30 of this report compiled by Corruption Watch.

“Because this case is such a gross and cruel abuse of power — one resulting in the death of this man — inevitably the police and specialist agencies are the appropriate power to take on this investigation,” explains Lewis. “But the case certainly falls under our definition of corruption. It is an abuse of power of the grossest sort, and like in this case, the use of video is also important to us. The fact that citizens can record abuses like these on a relatively inexpensive device without the proverbial camera equipment of the past is very important to our work.”

Raising awareness through massive outreach

In January of 2012, civil servants, trade unionists and other community leaders launched Corruption Watch, a civil society organization dedicated to ending the scourge of corruption in South Africa. In just one year, the anti-corruption campaigns of Corruption Watch have exploded onto the South African public’s radar through their innovative combination of old and new media.

“Corruption Watch has taken on a huge focus area and involved senior officials from government and the major trade unions from the beginning. They came in with a bang and got to work,” said Alex Eliseev, an award-winning senior journalist at Eyewitness News in Johannesburg. “After the end of apartheid, South Africa’s leadership transitioned from essentially a liberation movement to the government of a country, and after our initial honeymoon period, corruption across all spheres of society, from the top to the bottom, became one of the biggest problems in South Africa.”

Eliseev has used the resources of Corruption Watch in his numerous investigations for EyeWitness News as well as other South African publications, particularly on his work to expose what is known as the Mvula Trust Scandal in which millions were stolen in a public-private public employment project. He says Corruption Watch is “a welcome addition to the landscape” and hopes it will help curb corruption so South Africa can move on as a country.

“As far as accomplishments go, it depends on how you define ‘significant’ and on what perspective you’re taking,” said Lewis. “We’re engaged in big sexy institutional cases that challenge the misappropriation of contracts and resources for major public works projects, but if you’re interested in the human dimension, it’s the so-called petty corruption cases — the bribery, the sexual exploitation, nepotism — that really touch people’s lives. It’s particularly through progress on these cases that we convince the public that it’s worthwhile reporting to us.”

Through a massive awareness and outreach campaign, Corruption Watch encourages citizens to report incidents of corruption via their website, by phone, by SMS, by Facebook, by Twitter, by email, by fax, bypost, and by walk-in appointments. The incidents are vetted by Corruption Watch’s team and entered into their computer system that identifies hotspots, patterns, and other analytical outputs necessary to proceed with further investigations, publicity, and community outreach. This data has allowed Corruption Watch to prioritize issue-areas and launch targeted campaigns to address the problems that affect South Africans most.

One such campaign, the No More Tjo-Tjo campaign, challenged the pervasiveness of the solicitation of traffic bribes. By issuing “Know Your Rights” cards to motorists, by tracking data on traffic police corruption, and by outlining a plan of action for the Johannesburg police, Corruption Watch dove into this prevalent issue in South African society in early 2012, and in just 8 months, they exposed that one in four motorists were solicited for a bribe in 2010 alone. These efforts, coupled with an expansive media outreach campaign, garnered an impressive amount of press coverage, forcing city officials to respond. By October of 2012, the City of Johannesburg launched its official anti-corruption strategy, including the recommendations of Corruption Watch, a major victory and “first step” in tackling this endemic issue.

Feeling the campaign's impact

“Corruption Watch has a very important role as a neutral and critical voice,” explained Carol*, a former corporate board member-turned-whistleblower. Carol says she spent a decade with her organization managing a large public sector program, only to watch it deteriorate under the corrupt leadership of specific colleagues, who “channelled work and income to their own companies and destroyed the integrity and potential of the organization.” The program, a public-private employment-generating project, allegedly began sub-contracting over $3 million to unauthorized and undisclosed third-parties. After the police responded tepidly to her initial report, Carol and another disillusioned colleague turned to Corruption Watch, which she had heard of via the local media, to report their case.

Carol was quickly assigned an investigating journalist. Upon the completion of its investigation, CW arranged meetings between the whistleblowers and trusted journalists before releasing a combined radio, online, and print press release about the case. The four-month investigation generated both media and public responses, which Carol believes has has raised public awareness about government contract irregularities and other conflicts-of-interest as the case continues.

“There is often no movement when cases are reported to the police, and people in government can exert a lot of pressure to keep negative stories quiet,” Carol said. “It is most welcome that there is a space where corruption issues can be reported to capacitated and unbiased people to investigate, follow-up, and challenge wrong-doers.”

In addition to successful individual cases and issue-area campaigns, Corruption Watch has taken an aggressive approach in identifying corrupt public officials. Adopting a weekly publicity strategy, the NGO publishes its “Heroes and Zeroes” report on its website, a profiling campaign that highlights public officials identified as allies in the anti-corruption fight — while naming-and-shaming officials on the other end of the spectrum.

“Although we have a very careful reporting process that keeps the identity of the whistleblower and the perpetrator confidential while the investigation is underway, we have been threatened with defamation allegations,” said Lewis. “We take this seriously and understand that reporting can always be used for bad-faith purposes, but we are willing to take chances, and if we believe we have enough evidence, we will publish their names.”

Multifaceted media approach

The publicity and awareness campaigns of Corruption Watch have been particularly effective in shining a light on corruption due to their multifaceted media approach. As an NGO with limited resources, their team has leveraged social media as an inexpensive and effective means of communicating with the next generation. The team itself publishes its own material to the site, about 30 new articles each month, including new media visuals like infographics and other creative media representations of corruption in South Africa, their progress, and their greatest challenges.

“Corruption Watch is front-and-center a media project, although we are involved in each step of the anti-corruption process from investigation to litigation,” explained Lewis. “Primarily we are attempting to persuade the public to take on corruption and that those who fall victim to corruption are best placed to take up the fight. We need media platforms to make this pitch to the public and platforms through which the public can respond and engage.”

In one of their most recent campaigns, the team enlisted the popular South African satirist and cartoonist Mdu Ntuli to create an animated series for their Corruption in Schools campaign. The series has aired both on Corruption Watch’s Youtube channel and local television. Some of the videos have been viewed up to 20,000 times, as of this writing.

“These 90-second shorts include a seedy character associated with corruption, who, unlike in real life, always gets caught,” explains Lewis. “The series is helping us to not only raise awareness and reach different audiences creatively, but also to create a public persona for our cause.”

Video from the Corruption Watch campaign

The Corruption Watch team, many of whom are former journalists, has been keen to leverage their contacts in traditional media outlets as well. With limited budgets, this outreach is more challenging for the NGO, yet necessary in order to reach the South African public. The team has worked with local television, radio, and print news on exposes on corruption as well as general coverage. In 2013, for example, they negotiated the inclusion of their 19-page anniversary report in Johannesburg’s The City Press, which is the company's third-largest newspaper with an average of 2.5 million readers per day.

“We’ve been slated as very hip and cutting-edge because of our effective use of social media, but actually a lot of our outreach is tailored to the traditional news mediums used here in South Africa, particularly radio,” said Lewis.

In 2013, the organization’s second year, Lewis hopes to enhance their new media innovation and social media capacity.

“Without these new technologies and outreach strategies, our level of success would simply not be possible. We’ve received a lot of attention for our social media work here in South Africa, but I know we’re barely on the curb and that the potential is vast,” Lewis said. “In the future, we hope to work with experts in this field, specialists with more experience than ourselves in engaging different publics in our cause, particularly the Obama campaign. What we have now is just the beginning.”

*Carol asked that her real name be withheld because she did not want to be associated with the scandal that Corruption Watch uncovered.

Anna Therese Day is an independent journalist based in the Middle East and North Africa. You can follow her on the ground on Twitter at @AnnaOfArabia or on Facebook at Facebook.com/AnnaThereseDay.

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