On April 3, 2017:
The Special Court recently issued a verdict instructing the government to impose a fine of over Rs. 450 million on both Chinese and Thai companies that had supplied sub-standard transformers to Nepal Electricity Authority. The judiciary action has once again underscored the institutional failure of the Commission for Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA) and highlighted the ongoing repercussions of Lokman’s controversial three year-long tenure. This has also engendered a vibrant discussion on media’s role to address fundamental rights of unfortunate government officials, unnecessarily embroiled in corruption allegations and dragged into controversy.
Lokman’s towering heights of hype for executing tasks perfunctorily in the form of massive arrests and inter-departmental orders originated from a well-publicized transformer scam in August of 2013. His absolute interference in the case involving Nepal Electricity Authority (NEA) and the Chinese company, Hubei Sun Light Electric Co. Ltd, entailed an outright breach of contractual international law and regulation. This led to serious corruption allegations against a spate of government officials, and subsequently disrupted the previously initiated transformer replacement process. However, the allegations that the scam took place in collusion with all the accused NEA officials and the Chinese company have proved to be baseless.
While Lokman’s downfall is well-documented, what’s more unfortunate is a dearth of engaging discussion on how his unabated policing efforts inevitably led to a severe “domino effect”. The effect spilled over to other areas of the economy and tarnished social prestige of some of the suspected officials. This has brought about a more serious question: what role does media play in assessing the CIAA-led actions in terms of character and moral stewardship? More specifically, how are Lokman’s abortive actions during his ignominious tenure linked with media and justice for the suspected officials?
First, there is no denying that media plays a significant role in influencing the minds of the Nepalese public. When Lokman filed a corruption case against the NEA officials with massive publicity, detailed pictures and names of the suspected officials covered the front-paged headlines in every major newspaper. There is nothing wrong in reporting the details of the case; however, what’s problematic is how media chooses to cover such events.
Strikingly, media coverage turned out to be drastically different when the court recently declared that majority of the suspected officials had become unfortunate victims of the CIAA propaganda. Most of the news sources didn’t even report names of the innocent officials who won their case against the anti-graft body. Why does such a stark disparity exist in media reports before and after the court proceedings?
Despite prior extensive coverage on the accusations, the media probably didn't deem it important enough to highlight the Special Court's clean chit to the suspected officials. It therefore implies that media appears to overlook the story involving corrupt-free and innocent government officials. However, it has serious implications among the public.
Apart from minimizing potential bias to demonstrate consistency in the quality of news coverage, media is also responsible for being more receptive towards perverse consequences of a sensationalized public allegation. When media reports well-publicized corruption accusations in detail before legal procedures take into effect, majority of the public perceives such coverage as the ultimate verdict, impairing both social status and labor market opportunities of the alleged individuals. Even after winning legal battle against the state, it seems difficult for the public to dismiss the CIAA-led hoopla as another regrettable example of circuitous celebrity politics. This serves absolute injustice to government officials, who have previously endured baseless allegations and missed out on potential career opportunities.
Second, CIAA’s plan of action requires more transparency and sense of accountability. Despite scathing criticism against solely targeting a spate of low-profile corruption cases, the anti-graft body has repeatedly blown its own trumpet, proclaiming allegiance to corruption-free society irrespective of rank, seniority and political influence. Worse, it appears to take pride in expanding the scope of lawsuits and citing a high number of haphazard arrests made in relation to corruption charge-sheets.
Even though Lokman faced an impeachment motion in Parliament and eventually got disqualified, his legacy is still extant. Does CIAA have any moral responsibility towards addressing human rights of innocent government officials who endured acts of vilification? Does it have any existing mechanism in place that properly compensates for loss of both career growth and social prestige of falsely accused officials? Until the new CIAA leadership remains mute on such sensitive matters, it is difficult to dispel the myth that public allegations are credible. More specifically, it is outright dubious whether corruption-related cases are even rigorously studied and investigated prior to case registration in the Special Court.
In a just world, it is discriminatory that government officials, embroiled in public allegation, exclusively bear the brunt even after winning the corruption cases in the court. To add insult to injury, CIAA does not face any penalty for making false accusations and disrupting careers of committed government officials. Under these circumstances, it behooves the media to hold anti-graft bodies more accountable for impairing both illustrious careers and social status of the alleged government officials.
In conclusion, rampant corruption is an issue of significant policy concern. Yet, the underlying challenge ahead entails how anti-graft body representatives carry out investigative procedures. It is also necessary that media demonstrates its balanced approach towards reports and covers both sides of the story. Even if Lokman is long gone, his legacy remains intact. Unless CIAA is held accountable for affecting the social lives of falsely accused government officials, justice is still pending.