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 are 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 of the Criminal Code for passive public bribery and 246 §2 of the Criminal Code for active public bribery) and private bribery (art 504bis §1 of the Criminal Code for passive private bribery and art 504 §2 of the Criminal Code for active private bribery). (*) Belgium has also ratified international anti-corruption conventions from the Council of Europe (1999), from the OECD (1997) from the Council of the European Union (1997) and from the United Nations (2008). 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 and a threat to constitutional states. Corruption equally obstructs social development.

Impact of anti-corruption legislation on the business environment

To frame the impact of anti-corruption legislation on the business landscape, we looked at several internationally, influential jurisdictions. The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (USA - 1977), the Bribery Act (UK - 2010) and for instance the loi Sapin II (France - 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 programme 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 a company does come 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

To further gain insights in mechanisms that have an influence on how easy or difficult it is to be corrupt(ed), the workshop continued working around good governance and transparency. The hidden nature of the phenomenon, implies that to prevent and combat corruption, one must shine a light on areas that sometimes on purpose, sometimes due to ignorance or based on trust for instance, are kept in the dark. Transparency International’s vision is that governments, companies, organisations and individuals must be open in the clear disclosure of information, rules, plans, processes and actions. As a principle, public officials, civil servants, the managers and directors of companies and organisations, and board trustees have a duty to act visibly, predictably and understandably to promote participation and accountability and allow third parties to easily perceive what actions are being performed. 
Tools to prevent and detect corruption are e.g.: accurate policies, recording and reporting of data and decisions, a code of conduct, checks and balances (like the four eyes principle to sign off invoices, internal and external audits) and a general awareness about anti-corruption legislation and regulations including the sanctions imposed when breeched. Very important for prevention and detection as well, is to foster a culture in which people feel comfortable to speak up. In companies, Compliance Officers have an important role in manging and facilitating all those (and more) aspects. It should be stressed that although ‘doing the right thing’ is a shared responsibility of every member of an organisation, especially the Board of Directors and Senior Management, must be committed to applying high business ethics and integrity standards and they must 'walk the talk'. If the latter is not the case, an organisation will struggle to be credible for its ethical standards and values.

Liberal professions

The above described in a nutshell options for organisations to prevent and combat corruption. What about the liberal professions? Professions that act in a common interest and where the individual bears personal responsibility, are often subject to a deontological code and specific legislation. Journalists, like lawyers and doctors for instance, fall under this category. The group at Stamp Media confirmed that they were all familiarized as part of 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 a 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 it).

Reporting malpractices, easier said than done

Journalists play an important role in reporting malpractices. They investigate and work with individuals who share inside information. What are the pitfalls in this process?
Based on 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, thus creating unhealthy expectations, etc. The story also illustrated several 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 also 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?

Whistle blowers 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 whistle blowers 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 whistle blower 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 whistle blowers? 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 whistle blower? Does the issue affect society, or a group of individuals or perhaps only the whistle blower him/herself? What is at stake, for society, for the organisation, for the whistle blower, 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 can share its vision and engage others in its conviction that we are better off in a society that condemns corruption and promotes integrity. Do not hesitate to contact Hanneke de Visser ( if you are interested in more information.

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


2017-07, Hanneke de Visser, TI-Belgium