As described in the February issue of Sojourners magazine, activists worldwide are joining together to demand corporate transparency that will help make the world unsafe for kleptocracy; here, activist Rev. Alexa Smith offers a report from inside the movement:
"Publish what you pay" is the overwhelming demand being made -- at great personal risk -- by anti-corruption activists worldwide. In nations where millions, if not billions, of dollars are paid by oil, gas, and mining industries for the rights to dig, drill, or dredge, all too often these payments prop up governments where corruption runs rampant, and where officials find it easier to trample on the human rights of transparency activists, silencing anyone who raises a question, than to repent of or alter their own entrenched greed.
Imagine how Africa alone might benefit if all the money currently siphoned off into the pockets of corrupt or incompetent officials might be clearly stated in the national budget, so that civil society could demand that those dollars be accounted for and used for schools, hospitals, infrastructure, and other humane efforts. Many African activists are imagining just that -- and, all too often, facing persecution for it.
Last year alone in Africa, to my knowledge, six transparency activists were arrested and falsely charged with high-penalty (and often trumped-up) crimes for raising questions. Marc Ona, Georges Mpaga and Gregory Mintsa were arrested in Gabon; two journalists, Leona Dieudonne Koungou and Gaston Asseko, were also arrested there. In Niger, Marou Amadou and Wada Maman were arrested. And in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Golden Misabiko has been sentenced to one year in prison, with eight months of probation (he is currently in South Africa receiving medical treatment, and his case is under appeal).
Some of the men were jailed in difficult conditions, despite medical troubles. Ona is wheelchair-bound. Legal processes are rife with abuses -- from arrest without a warrant and denial of due process to poor conditions within prison and ongoing harassment before and after release. Amadou was forcibly picked up by police just hours after a court ordered his release.
But a bill in the U.S. Congress this year might tilt the tables in favor of those activists by making public the knowledge that will help give them the power for social change. The Energy Security Through Transparency Act is currently in the U.S. Senate and awaiting introduction into the House. Senate sponsors Dick Lugar (R-IN) and Benjamin Cardin (D-MD) were joined by Senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Roger Wicker (R-MS), and Russ Feingold (D-WI). The bill would require transparent financial reporting (i.e., publishing what they pay to foreign governments for the rights to mine or dredge) for all companies listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
The church believes that this is the is the most efficient way to reverse the abuses that accompany natural resource wealth, reduce poverty, and end repeated violations of human rights linked to resource extraction and corruption. And given the last year on Wall Street, it is hard to argue against transparency in corporate processes.
In addition to the ESTT Act, international pressure is essential to save people's lives and to carefully monitor the allegations leveled in legal actions. We are grateful beyond words for those who are already speaking up, and urge others to join them.
Rev. Dr. Alexa Smith works at the Presbyterian Church (USA), a member of the Publish What You Pay Coalition.