After being launched a year ago, the Bribespot app backed by Transparency International has failed to garner many reports. So what’s gone wrong?
Picture this: a police officer pulls you over on your scooter and insists you pay a $5 fine for an illegal turn you know you didn’t make. He leaves, you whip out your smart phone, and within seconds the details of the encounter have been plotted on a map of Phnom Penh, along with thousands of other accounts of similar injustices logged by other users.
This is what Transparency International hoped would happen when it launched the Khmer-language edition of corruption-reporting phone and web app Bribespot a year ago.
But while similar crowd-sourcing platforms have gone viral in other countries, and become powerful resources for anti-corruption advocates in the process, Bribespot has logged only 40 reports from Cambodia in the 12 months since its local launch.
“It’s going slower than we thought it would,” admitted Niklas Kossow over coffee last week. Kossow has just come to the end of a four-month contract with Transparency International, during which time he worked exclusively on promoting Bribespot to a local audience. He presented it at multiple tech conferences and youth events, advertised it on stickers and leaflets around the city, and promoted it via a paid Facebook advert that reached 130,000 local users.
But since he arrived in January this year, only nine bribes have been reported on the app. The lack of enthusiasm may come as a surprise considering Cambodia’s reputation for corruption.
In a survey conducted by Transparency International in February this year, 99 per cent of 18 to 30-year-olds – the app’s target demographic – labelled corruption a major barrier to national development. More significantly, 67 per cent of respondents said that they would be willing to report corruption if they encountered it.
Kossow, who has previously worked on anti-corruption policies in Eastern Europe, pointed out that smartphone penetration in Cambodia was still not what it could be, and said that there was more work to be done on “getting the word out”.
He added that in Thailand, where users logged more than thousand reports within a year of Bribespot’s launch there, government support had been a big boost. “Even the prime minister there said it was an important project for country.”
Kossow conceded that Transparency International had not contacted the Cambodian government to promote Bribespot but declined to discuss why. Meanwhile, President of the Cambodian Government’s Anti-Corruption Unit Om Yentieng said he had not heard of the initiative and said the government had its own mechanisms for citizens to report corruption.
Nuon Aronvisal, a volunteer who works to promote Bribespot among young Cambodians, raised a fundamental problem with the concept. “Most people when they pay a bribe, they don’t even realise that it is a bribe,” he said. “They don’t know about the law, and how much they have to pay officials in particular situations.”
Preap Kol, executive director of Transparency International, said he had been badgering the government for two years to provide him with a comprehensive list of all legal fines and charges. The results are set to be publicised on a new website and app to be released next month, which Kol hopes will correct the “lack of information” that makes people hesitant to report bribes.
And, Kol is quick to point out, the internet has already proved itself a powerful platform for other anti-bribery approaches. Over the past two weeks, a soap-style short film from Transparency International on the subject of judicial corruption has gone viral. The five-minute tells the story of how a judge ruins the life of his daughter’s best friend by taking a bribe that robs her family of deserved compensation.
Since it was released, Justice For Sale has been viewed over a quarter of a million times and shared on Facebook by over 16,000 people. “Film depends on emotions, and the bigger the theme, the stronger it is in the end,” explained Matthew Robinson, owner of Khmer Mekong Films who made the short. “It’s difficult to make a short film with emotion about a dowdy faced policeman taking a couple of dollars off someone. That’s not going to have any impact.”
Preap Kol agrees that dramatic instances of corruption are easier to publicise than low-level law breaking, but he is a firm believer in the trickle-down effect. “It’s like shrimp soup in Cambodia,” he said, explaining that because the antennae get knotted together it’s hard to extract one without pulling the others out with it.
Despite Kossow’s departure, Kol thinks that Bribespot will start racking up hits as soon as the comprehensive list of correct fees and fines is published next month.
Bribespot volunteer Visal said that until then, anyone unsure whether or not an exchange was above board should post it on the site anyway, and he’d do the research himself. “Everything that gets put on Bribespot, I will respond,” he said.