AT THIS time every year, the Auditor-general’s annual report for the previous year is handed to the president and shortly afterward made public. It is a Godsend for journalists as the report is a gold-mine of information about procedural irregularities, low-level corruption and minor abuses of power in the public sector. Most of the local pages of newspapers feature stories taken from the report for several days as suspicions of scandals make good copy, not to mention very easy work for journalists as the investigation has been done for them.
This is not a new phenomenon as exactly the same thing happened when the more cautious Chrystalla Georghadji was Auditor-general. Her successor is probably more in tune with what newspapers like to report and made sure he included items that would make a bit of a stir, like the allowances collected by deputies, the capital statements of politicians and the retirement bonuses of Thoc actors.
A very interesting feature of this year’s report was the investigation into the changes of the zoning designations for land which provides big cash benefits to affected owners. We do not know if this was an attempt by Odysseas Michaelides to have another dig at Socratis Hasikos who had signed off the changes decided by his predecessor at the interior ministry and approved by the Christofias government, despite the objections of review boards, but its inclusion was commendable; in a letter, leaked to Politis, Michaelides had also named 12 politically exposed persons who benefited from the changes.
Many Cypriots have benefited from land zoning changes over the years, some becoming very wealthy as a result. It is all about having inside information about planned changes. Someone in the know would buy agricultural land with a building coefficient of 10 per cent and see its value increase five-fold as soon as the government reassigned it in a residential zone (building coefficient 60 per cent). Others with connections to the government may persuade officials to change zoning so they would benefit. It is a get-rich-quick method as old as the Republic.
Dealing with the issue of zoning in the report was a good move by Michaelides, as was the leaking of the names of politically exposed beneficiaries. Hasikos has said he would freeze the new zoning designations, except for land on which development had been undertaken, until the case was reviewed. This was the correct decision by Hasikos, but also showed that Michaelides, when he focuses on important issues, could have a real impact in the authorities’ less than zealous fight against corruption.
As for the news media, which thrive on the Auditor-general’s report and investigation findings, they can help by keeping issues alive. It is no good reporting a suspected scandal or irregularity once and then forgetting about it, because the likelihood is that nothing would be done. The Auditor-general’s annual report should not be considered newspaper subject matter for a week or two and then forgotten until the next year.