Workshop for StampMedia

Date : 17/05/2017

Corruption in Belgium, does it exist? An interesting afternoon with young journalists about corruption, good governance, integrity and whistleblowing.

Future generation of investigative journalists

TI-Belgium was invited by StampMedia, a youth news agency in Antwerp, to moderate a workshop for young journalists and journalism students about the role of corruption in the lives of Belgian journalists. The workshop was part of a larger project initiated by the European Youth Press, with the support of the Council of Europe. The objective was to study corruption, how journalists can detect it and play a role in fighting corruption and avoid conflicts of interest themselves in their professional capacity. Several European youth news agencies are working on this topic in 2017, with the objective to gain knowledge and develop 'appetite' for investigative journalism. The media is of course an important stakeholder in the fight against corruption and TI-Belgium was delighted to share some of its insights and expertise with the future generation of investigative journalists. Lubume Vande Velde, Chair of Young TI, kindly offered to co-moderate this workshop with Hanneke de Visser, Operations Manager of TI-Belgium. Below an overview of what was discussed.

History of corruption, although an ancient practice, a recent item on the (inter)national agenda

Transparency International defines corruption as the abuse of entrusted power for private gain. How does this definition relate to corruption according to Belgian legislation and diverse international conventions? Although corruption as a concept is as old as mankind itself, the damaging effects are recognized with legislation only recently. In Belgium, corruption became an item on the political agenda at the beginning of the 20th century (1910) due to irregularities in the Board of the National Railways. Today, Belgian has legislation for public bribery (art 246 §1 for passive public bribery and 246 §2 for active public bribery) and private bribery (art 504bis §1 for passive private bribery and art 504 §2 for active private bribery). (*) Belgium has also ratified international anti-corruption conventions from the Council of Europe (1999), from the OECD (1997) and from the European Council (1997). Ratification of the United Nations Convention against Corruption (2003) is in process. Especially for the younger generation, it might be surprising that the increased attention for corruption as a plague with corrosive effects on societies, is quite recent. To summarize briefly, damaging effects are the undermining of democratic decision making, a low level of trust of citizens and business people in society, a threat to constitutional states. Corruption obstructs social development.

Impact of anti-corruption legislation on the business environment

To frame the impact of anti-corruption legislation on the business landscape, it is important for journalists to be aware of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA - 1977), the UK Bribery Act (UKBA - 2010) and for instance the loi Sapin II (2016). Especially companies infringing the FCPA, have over recent years paid fines ranging from a few millions up to 800 million USD. Multinationals with international operations are 'on the radar', but also SMEs can be affected. As a result, most multinationals have invested heavily in developing a robust compliance programmes over the past 5-10 years and alertness is growing with SMEs. An important task of compliance departments is to prevent malpractices. To mitigate the risk in the event the company comes under investigation, it is also highly important to be able to demonstrate that adequate procedures are in place to avoid corruption in their operations, including when dealing with third parties. Transparency is important.

Good governance and transparency

Transparency means that individuals or organisations that depend on administrative decisions, commercial transactions or agreements, have access to information that demonstrates how decisions are taken. Public servants, directors and institutes, have the obligation to manage their organisations in a clear, understandable and predictable fashion. Therefore, good governance must be communicated openly to stakeholders, demonstrating accountability, control mechanisms, reporting tools and procedures for internal and external sanctions. This is the 'bread and butter' for compliance officers. Important however, is to realise that every individual that owns and manages risks, takes responsibility. It speaks for itself that especially the Board of Directors and Senior Management must be committed to managing this process to the highest standards and to 'walk the talk'. External audit and regulatory supervisors form the final line of defence to combat malpractices.

Not all activities that can involve corrupt practices or ethical issues, are necessarily covered by 'tailor made' individual governance structures. For professions that because of the nature of their activities are 'at risk', like doctors, lawyers, but also journalists, codes of conduct applicable to the entire profession, have been developed. Journalists are familiarized during their education with the Code of the Journalism Council (2010), the Declaration of the rights and duties of journalists (1971) and the Code of journalistic principles (1982).

As watchdog for democratic values, journalists inform citizens as adequately and objectively as possible about issues that are relevant to society. Press freedom is anchored in the Belgian Constitution (art. 25 Gw). As Jean Paul Martoz from the Ethical Journalism Network mentioned during a Young TI event about the role of the media as watchdog for corruption in healthcare in December 2016, journalism is about: 1. truth seeking 2. independence 3. humanity (minimizing harm, being fully aware of the consequences) 4. transparency and 5. accountability (if we are wrong, we must admit and openly correct).

Reporting malpractices, easier said than done

Journalists can play an important role in reporting malpractices. It is their job to investigate and work with individuals who can share inside information. What are the pitfalls in this process?

On the basis of a fictive story about the experiences of a young journalist, the workshop highlighted how conflicts of interest can arise because of dependency on inside information providers that have the power to manipulate, because of personal relationships, because of hospitality and gifts creating unhealthy expectations, etc. The story also illustrated a number of red flags that can be indicators for malpractices, such as operations with third parties in countries that score low at the Corruption Perceptions Index and negative side effects of CSR initiatives that, although developed with genuinely good intentions, were overlooked.

Follow the money

To illustrate the complexity of risk mitigation in the business environment, a comparison was made between a Belgian manufacturing company selling its products directly to customers abroad and a company working with sales intermediaries in foreign countries. Does the sales intermediary respect the code of conduct of its Belgian client? How is the Belgian entity going to mitigate the risk regarding information provided to customers about their product, regarding the relationship with local authorities that impose taxes, grant licences and permits and what about local customs and perhaps additional service providers that come into play?

Whistleblowers and journalists

Wrongdoings in organisations usually do not go by unnoticed. Yet, it is not obvious to benefit from the eyes and ears on the work floor to stop the damaging effects of corruption and fraud. In Belgium and many other countries alike, whistle blowers are more often punished than rewarded. Currently, there is no legal protection against retaliation or loss of income for whistleblowers in the private sector in Belgium, which does not help.

As corruption by nature is hidden, cases nevertheless, often come to light when someone speaks up. Usually, the reporting of a wrongdoing starts within the organisation. When this does not have the desired outcome, a next step is to turn to an ombudsman, a person of confidence or a labour union for instance. Before a whistleblower contacts the media, in most cases, he/she already encountered a lot of resistance, rejection and disbelief.

There are platforms that provide for anonymous reporting to the media. But, can journalists rely on anonymous whistleblowers? Should a journalist only commit to confidentiality rather than anonymity and can this be guaranteed if the case goes to court? How can you check whether the statements are true? What is the motive of the whistleblower? Does the issue affect society, or a group of individuals or perhaps only the whistleblower him/herself? What is at stake, for society, for the organisation, for the whistleblower, and for the journalist? How to maintain a balance between access to information and privacy and data protection? A lot of deontological issues arise and as a journalist it is important to oversee them and to manage the risks responsibly.

The media, NGOs, business communities, we can all play an important role in the combat of corruption. By moderating workshops, TI-Belgium is offered the opportunity to share its vision and to engage others in its conviction that we are better off in a society that condemns corruption and promotes integrity. Do not hesistate to contact Hanneke de Visser ( if you are interested in more information.

(* source: Office Central pour la Répression de la Corruption)