Covering Corruption

Covering Corruption

There's been a huge spike in media coverage of corruption in east-central Europe--no big surprise to one political scientist, who finds a close connection to the region's EU aspirations.

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THE SOURCE: “The Corruption Eruption in ­East-­Central Europe: The Increased Salience of Corruption and the Role of Intergovernmental Organizations” by Alexandru Grigorescu, in East European Politics and Societies, Summer 2006.

Corruption is drawing news media attention around the world than it did only a couple of decades ago, but in no region has there been so radical an increase as in east-central Europe. Between 1996 and 2004, the number of stories on political and economic corruption rose ­seven-­fold in the region’s six ­countries.

“Today all of the major newspapers from the area run, on a regular basis, multiple stories about everyday corrupt practices, ­high-­level corruption scandals, or governmental and ­non-­governmental declarations regarding the fight against corruption,” writes Alexandru Grigorescu, a political scientist at Loyola University in Chicago. About seven percent of the region’s print and broadcast news stories in 2004 that were included in his study dealt with corruption. And there has been action: tougher prison sentences for bribery in the Czech Republic, civil service reform in Poland, and many other measures. High officials accused of illicit activities in Bulgaria and Slovakia have lost their ­jobs.

Yet Grigorescu isn’t about to rhapsodize about the glories of a free press. News media coverage of corruption in other parts of the world has not increased since the mid-1990s, even in areas where the problem is more severe, such as East Asia and Latin America. Nor has there been much change in global media, such as The New York Times. A few local factors explain the performance of the east-­central European news media, including the special concern with fairness in these countries after decades of communist egalitarianism. But Grigorescu thinks the decisive factor was the role of the European Union. It’s no mystery why. The Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia were all slated to join the EU in 2004; Bulgaria and Romania will enter in ­2007.

In part because of fears of a contagion effect introduced by new members, the EU has zealously promoted anticorruption efforts. Its annual country progress reports have been especially effective in drawing attention to the problem, Grigorescu says, and it made membership contingent on certain systemic reforms. About 80 percent of the region’s news stories on corruption mentioned the ­EU.

With the region’s accession to the Union now nearly complete, Grigor­escu worries that the EU will take its eye off the ball, and that the news media will consequently lose interest. The region’s track ­record—­a score of only 3.8 on Transparency International’s 10-point corruption ­scale—­is hardly sterling, and surveys show that little more than a third of its people express confidence in their national governments. A public that perceives its government as ineffective and riddled with corruption, Grigorescu writes, is a public ripe for arguments that the weaknesses of democracy itself are the ­problem.

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