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August 07, 2013

Fledgling Website Brings Fact Checking to South Africa

by Peter Cox

The 'facts' in South Africa now have a kind of watchdog.

Africa Check, a fledgling fact checking website, is attempting to pin down unfounded claims made by the country's leaders, media outlets along with widely held beliefs.  

There is a common claim in Johannesburg that it has the largest man-made forest in the world. It's easy to believe; the city has lush, green canopy that covers many neighborhoods.

But it's not true, according to Africa Check, which found that the largest man-made forest is actually in China, next to the Gobi desert.

Debunking bogus claims, politically charged fictions and unfounded statements, Africa Check is a website that challenges media, politicians and the occasional social media celebrity when they massage the truth, or ignore it completely, said Julian Rademeyer, southern Africa editor for the site.

"I think the fundamental element of our work is that we are trying to get people to question what they're told, what they read, what politicians say to them, and to look at what the information that is there and ask essentially what the fundamental question is 'Where is the evidence?' If someone makes a claim, where is the evidence to support that claim, and to actually interrogate those claims and not to accept things purely for what they are," Rademeyer said.

Africa Check was launched in June 2012 by the Agence France Press foundation in partnership with the University of Witswaterand's journalism department.

Rademeyer and a researcher are the site's two full-time employees. There is also a team of freelance reporters who work on fact checking assignments.

Following in the footsteps of popular American websites like PolitiFact and Factcheck.org, Africa Check is the first media outlet in South Africa to solely work in fact checking.

South Africa has a strong legacy of investigative journalism and photography that dates back to the apartheid era. But like many countries, Rademeyer says its news industry has been hampered by shrinking budgets and newsrooms.

"Because of the fact that newspapers don't have the resources they would've had in the past, or don't have specialist beat reporters," he said. "It allows public figures and it allows politicians to make claims that don't go checked. …. I think that's where we play a role. We come in and look at those claims and we have the ability and the time to go through those claims."

Paula Fray, former editor for the Star Newspaper and a media consultant, says Africa Check may put a much-needed pressure on newsrooms.

"At the moment Africa Check is not known as much as I'm hoping as it going to be known," she said. "I'm hoping that eventually journalists will be writing their stories and thinking if my news editor doesn't pick up that something hasn't been verified, Africa Check might pick up that it hasn't been verified. So I'm not going to put anything in my stories unless I can prove it."

She also hopes it will create a greater culture of accountability.
 
"I think the more organizations out there holding journalism to account the better actually for the industry," Fray said.

The site also takes on myths that get repeated so often that they go unchecked.

When a South African musician with 175,000 Facebook followers made the claim that white South Africans are being killed at an alarming rate, Africa Check looked into the facts. It found that most of the musician's claims were exaggerated or untrue.

But the report also shed light on one of the challenges of South African statistics from the apartheid era.

"The crime data from apartheid South Africa for white neighborhoods is generally fairly accurate." Rademeyer said.  "But the problem is that a lot of the crime reporting for instance from apartheid era homelands, the crime reporting from townships in the 1970s and 80s was appalling. Statistics weren't kept, and they're a mess. And historically those are challenges that you do have to deal with," he said.

The site has also debunked claims made about traditional healers, South Africa's rate of asylum seekers and a BBC report about white squatter camps in South Africa.

Long term,  Rademeyer envisions the site expanding across the continent.

"I really do think as a project it could play a very important role," he said. "We've done some very basic fact checking or fact sheet-related reporting on elements of the elections in Zimbabwe recently….We'd obviously like to do more of that in the next elections in Zimbabwe, for instance, and elections in neighboring countries. And try to expand our reach."

With presidential elections looming next year in South Africa, Botswana, Mozambique and Namibia, the site will be busy.