Have 36 million South Africans been given access to proper sanitation since 1994? Is the country’s basic education department replacing a “mud school a week” in the impoverished Eastern Cape province? Do 400 000 white South Africans live in squatter camps? Have levels of violent crime in South Africa really gone down in the past year? Are whites being murdered “like flies”? And what did President Jacob Zuma really say about Malawi’s roads?
These are just some of the many claims we have investigated recently at Africa Check, the non-profit, fact-checking website I have been editing since April 2013.
Loosely modelled on Politifact.com in the United States and Fullfact.org in the United Kingdom, AfricaCheck.org was established a year ago by the Agence France Presse Foundation in conjunction with the Wits University journalism department. To my knowledge, it is the first website of its kind on the continent.
The concept isn’t a new one. Fact-checking websites have existed in the US for the better part of a decade. But in recent years an increasing number of these sites have sprung up around the world. In part, they are the result of deepening political cynicism and a growing mistrust of public figures and institutions. Traditional media outlets have created many of them but others, like Africa Check, are independent ventures.
We have a small permanent staff, including our director Peter Cunliffe-Jones; myself; two tireless researchers, Kate Wilkinson and Sintha Chiumia; and a growing pool of freelance writers. Our backers include the Open Society Foundation, Google and the African News Innovation Challenge. Over the next few months we will be hiring more staff and expanding our reach to Zimbabwe, Zambia and Swaziland and parts of west and east Africa.
Our aim is to hold public figures and institutions to account for the claims and promises that they make, to separate fact from fiction, to encourage good journalism, debate and, above all, accuracy. We want our readers to question and challenge what they see, read and hear each day. And that includes our reports.
Importantly, we also want to encourage a culture of fact checking in newsrooms. South African newspapers and magazines, with rare exceptions, have little formal tradition of fact-checking copy.
But newsrooms are getting smaller and less experienced. Budget cutbacks have had a crippling effect. Reporters rush from one press conference or story to another trying to hack out articles for the next hour’s bulletin or the next day’s newspaper. In many instances, they simply don’t have the time to fact-check claims that are made during press briefings or in statements or speeches.
Fact-checking sites differ from traditional news-driven reporting models in that they can take the time to properly interrogate claims and focus on specific details that often get lost in media reports and news cycles. For instance, the often repeated claim that 90% of South Africans have access to “clean and safe” drinking water. Or the claim that 58 dedicated sexual offences courts would be operational in South Africa by September. Or Zuma’s claim that 98 new schools would be completed in the Eastern Cape by March this year.
Recently, a storm of controversy erupted in Cape Town over an ANC billboard that was erected in the grounds of a Cape Town school in contravention of electoral regulations. But the claim made on the billboard – that five million South Africans had access to sanitation in 1994, compared to 41 million in 2013 – went unchecked in the ensuing press coverage. We investigated and found the claim to be false.
Fact checking can sometimes be a fraught business. A report written by freelance researcher Nechama Brodie, which examined and debunked claims by Afrikaans singer Steve Hofmeyr that white South Africans are being murdered “like flies”, sparked a vicious, racist backlash from his supporters. There were threats and anti-Semitic slurs directed at Brodie. I was called a traitor because of my Afrikaans surname and one reader wrote to me saying that he hoped members of my family would be raped and murdered.
The reports we publish are available free of charge to anyone who wants to republish them. And, increasingly, leading news websites, newspapers and radio stations around South Africa are carrying them.
We produce factsheets and guides for reporters on key subjects. One of the most successful examples of this is a recent partnership between Africa Check and the Institute for Security Studies. Together we hosted a seminar for journalists prior to the release of the latest official South African crime statistics and produced a guide to reporting on crime statistics. On the day that police released the official crime data, we published a factsheet that critically examined the numbers. The result was that reporters were better informed and could ask hard questions when national police commissioner Riah Phiyega claimed the crime statistics were “a story of success”.
We also campaign for better, more open data. Too many government departments seem to believe that the data they gather at a cost to taxpayers is their property to do with as they please. This is certainly true of the police. The official crime data they release every year is months out of date and has little real value for South Africans trying to assess the current risks they face in their cities and towns. Despite the fact that South Africa has some of the best available data on the continent, the data that is publicly available is often poor or released in unwieldy PDF documents that make it difficult to extract and analyse.
Africa Check readership numbers have risen dramatically in recent months. At present, the site averages between 50 000 and 60 000 readers a month, nearly three times the numbers we had in April when the site began to employ permanent staff. Our readers play an invaluable role. Many regularly submit tip-offs and claims for us to fact-check. While we have established systems to regularly monitor press releases, news reports, speeches and research claims, the size of the team means that we cannot be everywhere and cannot fact-check every claim. Our readers are often our eyes and ears on the ground.
South Africa is gearing up for the 2014 election, arguably the most important since 1994. Africa Check will be there to fact-check the claims and counter-claims made by political parties across the spectrum. It will be our most challenging test yet, but we hope to play an important role in sifting fact from fiction.
Julian Rademeyer is editor of South Africa’s Africa Check website.
This story was first published in the February 2014 issue of The Media Magazine.