It seems inevitable that the final death throes of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi should be projected to the world through the humble mobile phone held in the hands of the growing army of ‘citizen reporters’.
The citizen reporter has become one of the most remarkable phenomena to burst on the global scene over the past few years. He, or she, is a direct creation of the ubiquitous mobile phone and its capacity to capture still and moving images as they happen, often far from the official media cameras. The mobile, in conjunction with the various social media – Facebook, Twitter and YouTube – has changed the nature of media reportage beyond all recognition. People no longer need to rely on traditional forms of information dissemination – radio, TV and the print media. The reverse is true. Traditional media finds itself increasingly beholden to the citizen reporter.
The power of this form of communication was perhaps first demonstrated during the post-election violence in Kenya. As the violence raged in parts of the country remote from the main thoroughfares, it was the mobile’s unblinking lens that spread the images and the sounds throughout the country and later, the world.
This lead to the development of data-mapping platforms such as Ushahidi (testimony) which collated the various images and beamed them around the world. One result was that Kenya underwent such extensive soul searching that it carried out perhaps the most extensive root and branch overhaul of all its public systems, including the constitution, in the history of modern Africa. Time magazine says Ushahidi has since been used 14,000 times in 128 countries to map everything from last year’s earthquake in Haiti to this year’s tsunami in Japan.
Petty corruption on the skids
Now the call is for this extraordinary device to be used in the fight against corruption. I was privileged to be invited to participate in a retreat arranged by the African Union Advisory Board on Corruption. The retreat, held in my former hometown of Mombasa, grouped together a galaxy of experts and included some of the continent’s most outstanding legal minds.
Professor Michael Chege, UNDP Advisor on International Development Policy, set the ball rolling by breaking down corruption into ‘grand corruption’, which involves illegal transactions and transfers worth millions and ‘quiet’ or ‘petty corruption’, which includes demands for bribes from policemen and other officials who demand extra payment to do what they are already being paid to do.
While the scale of petty corruption is no way near the value of grand corruption, it still exudes its pernicious influence and “corrodes society, weakening it and diminishes the power of authority,” he states. “You are unlikely to obey someone in authority who you have bribed.” Petty corruption is contagious. Those who get away with petty corruption encourage imitation from others until the network develops into a system and people say “everybody does it”. This is when the red flags should be flying furiously because once that point is reached, the rule of law, ethics, codes of behaviour and the day-to-day mode of conduct are thrown to the wolves and societies can degenerate into unruly mobs and violence.
Petty corruption often leads on to grand corruption and is actually more pernicious as it ‘legitimises’ the breaking of legal and social rules, and because it spreads among the masses. The problem is how to combat this form of corruption?
Here again, the humble mobile can come to the rescue. The anti-corruption units in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania have set up sites that people can call into and report instances of bribes. There have been cases where the victim has simply secretly pressed his on button, having dialled the watchdog number, and the entire conversation soliciting bribes or making threats is not only heard but recorded.
A large programme, aimed at cutting down corruption involved in land deals in India has shown spectacular success. Corrupt officials either lie to peasants about the value of their land, or take advantage of their relative ignorance to try and hoodwink them out of their properties. These deals are now conducted via mobile phones and recorded in central offices. Hundreds of thousands of officials have been arrested and crooked dealers have found themselves behind bars. The Indian public, it seems, has been so enthusiastic about the use of mobiles to monitor corruption that petty corruption has dropped, in some instances, to less than half.
Can the mobile be the front-line weapon of choice in the ongoing war on corruption in Africa?