On a recent edition of my non-transparency-related podcast, my co-host and I talked with science fiction author Tobias Buckell about the major changes that are taking place in the publishing industry. Tobias mentioned his discomfort with how the term “revolution” is applied to these kinds changes. Having grown up in the Caribbean, he explained, he has seen real revolutions up close and believes using that term to describe something like the advent of ebooks is somewhat hyperbolic.
I didn’t mention at the time that I’ve been putting out a blog with “revolution” in the title for a couple of months now, seeing as the revolution we talk about here also pretty much pales when compared to a shooting war. But then again…
Just two weeks ago we spent some time considering the plight of Amar Nath Deo Pandey, a man who has now survived two separate attempts on his life following his exposure of government corruption via the Indian Right of Information Act. Additionally, reader Anamika suggests we read up on Alexey Navalny a Russian lawyer who publishes a web site dedicated to exposing massive systemic corruption in Russia to the light of day:
Recently, prominent blogger Alexey Navalny—a lawyer who made a name for himself by campaigning for the rights of minority shareholders in major companies to gain access to corporate information—accused the Russian state-owned company Transneft of embezzling $4 billion of public money during construction of the Eastern Siberia-Pacific Ocean oil pipeline, citing an Accounts Chamber report. Coincidentally, just as this scandal came to light, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, speaking on the government’s behalf, thanked Transneft—headed by his former intelligence colleague in Dresden, Nikolay Tokarev—for its effective work.
Four billion sounds like a lot of money, but the overall problem is significantly larger than that:
By now, Russia’s reputation for corruption is a cliché, but it is impossible to overstate how it defines public life at every level, all the way to the Kremlin. Russia is one of the few countries in the world to slip steadily in Transparency International’s annual rankings. Out of a hundred and seventy-eight countries surveyed in 2010, Russia ranks a hundred and fifty-fourth, a spot it shares with Cambodia, Guinea-Bissau, and the Central African Republic. Corruption has reached such extremes that businesses involved in preparing the Black Sea resort of Sochi for the Winter Olympics of 2014 report having to pay kickbacks of more than fifty per cent. The Russian edition of Esquire recently calculated that one road in Sochi cost so much that it could just as well have been paved with, say, nine inches of foie gras or three and a half inches of Louis Vuitton handbags. In October, President Dmitry Medvedev announced that a trillion rubles—thirty-three billion dollars—disappears annually on government contracts. This is three per cent of the country’s G.D.P.
Those are some seriously high stakes. I observed when talking about the earlier case in India that there’s always someone who benefits from keeping others in the dark, or from keeping the flow of information to a trickle. In Russia, it’s pretty clear that everyone on the corruption gravy train — both government and private entities — have an interest in keeping a lid on things. It’s also quite clear, in a country where more than 300 journalists have been murdered over the past couple of decades, what precisely is at stake for someone like Navalny.
Whenever we talk about the need for greater transparency in organizations or government or society in general we should keep Pandey and Navalny, along with many others like them all over the world, in mind. When we consider the price they’re willing to pay in their pursuit of transparency, we are left with no excuses when it comes to our own efforts. These heroes who stand on the front lines of the real transparency revolution remind us that openness and access to information are things that should never be taken for granted, and that they are worth the price that we must pay for them.