28 May 2015

Heading the UNDP obliges Helen Clark to engage in some official responsibilities which must seem of dubious merit. Last week she spoke in Kazakhstan to the Astana Economic Forum about meritocracy and ethics in government.  She would hope that her comments would not be falling on deaf ears. Both the UNDP and the OECD are encouraging the growth of civil society to promote integrity in government and compensate for ineffective official controls.

The Kazakhstan public sector ranked 126th on the Transparency International  Corruption Perceptions Index in 2014, equal with Honduras, Togo, Gambia, Pakistan and Azerbeijan.  Kazakhstan is nearing the end of a five year Anti Corruption Programme, but companies report corruption as the number one constraint on doing business.  The Customs service for example is notoriously corrupt with facilitation payments demanded by officials in about 30% of transactions.

Little has changed despite numerous initiatives to moderate corruption.  Lessons don’t seem to be learned.  The director of the 2011 Asian Winter Games – which was the country’s largest ever event – has been convicted and imprisoned for extensive spending of public money on property and cars for his personal use. The bid for the 2022 Winter Olympics – as the rival of Beijing – is predicted to give opportunities to many in the construction sector to extract vast personal benefit from the $3.5 bn to be spent on Games-related projects. The Olympics ambassador was Vinokourov who won the gold medal for cycling at the London Olympics on his return to competition after being banned for drug taking on the 2007 Tour de France.

Kazakhstan as with the other states formerly part of the Soviet Union has had only 25 years during which democracy  – and the constitutional principles that grow with democratic elections -have struggled to take root.  In a survey published in late April, Freedom House  press freedom around the world was found to be at the lowest point in more than ten years with press freedom  in a majority of countries, including most former Soviet states, going backwards. In Kazakhstan there was a continuing crackdown on the media with journalists and news outlets subjected to legal restrictions, censorship, and intimidation. Constitutional guarantees are of little effect in moderating actions by the Kazakh government that limit freedoms of speech and of the press. Government control over 70% of web access has limited the effectiveness of social media.

However, even Israel which prides itself on being the only developed state in the region with nearly 70 years of western values is again in the news for unwelcome reasons.  Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert , currently serving six years for receiving corrupt payments  when he was a Minister, has this week been convicted on more charges for accepting unlawful payments when he was the mayor of Jerusalem. He was acquitted previously of corrupt activities during the three years when he was the Prime Minister.

Olmert is the only one who ultimately has been convicted and imprisoned of four Israeli Prime Ministers investigated for corruption. Over the last 20 years three former Ministers and more than ten other MPs have been imprisoned for corrupt practices. That suggests cracks in the institutionalised  respect for the rule of law in which  opportunism can flourish. What marks Israel out is that it also has real press freedom – ranked 30th this year and unchanged from 2014.

Press Freedom in New Zealand continues to decline with a year on year slide from a high point of 2nd place in 1998 to 15th place this year.  It is interesting to compare the Freedom House rankings with the Reporters without Borders rankings which, this year, placed New Zealand in 6th place for press freedom.

Freedom House Press Freedom 2015 

1st= Norway
3rd= Finland
6th= Luxembourg
8th Switzerland
9th= Iceland
12th= Portugal
15th= New Zealand

Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom 2015

1 Finland
2 Norway
3 Denmark
4 Netherlands
5 Sweden
6 New Zealand
7 Austria
8 Canada
9 Jamaica
10 Estonia
11 Ireland
12 Germany