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Nonpartisan Fact-Checking Comes to South Africa

July 24, 2013

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JOHANNESBURG — A Facebook posting by Steve Hofmeyr, a popular Afrikaans musician, under the heading “my tribe is dying,” cried out for some fact-checking.

Were white South Africans really being slaughtered “like flies”? Was a white farmer truly being killed every five days?

Julian Rademeyer, a veteran investigative journalist, is the southern Africa editor of Africa Check, a fledgling Web site that is attempting to bring the same journalistic fact-checking to this part of the world that groups like PolitiFact and FactCheck.org have brought to the United States. Dubious of Mr. Hofmeyr’s claims on Facebook, Mr. Rademeyer commissioned an investigation.

Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times Julian Rademeyer of Africa Check, a fledgling journalistic fact-checking Web site in Johannesburg.

Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times
Julian Rademeyer of Africa Check, a fledgling journalistic fact-checking Web site in Johannesburg.

The group found that the best available data suggested that whites were not dying in greater numbers and certainly at nowhere near the rate that Mr. Hofmeyr asserted. Indeed, Mr. Hofmeyr’s evidence was based on a dubious, decade-old article that had been making the rounds on right-wing Web sites under the byline of a supposed “black journalist” whom no one could locate and who appeared to have written only that one article in his entire career.

“The claims are incorrect and grossly exaggerated,” Africa Check declared, relying on the work of a freelance researcher, Nechama Brodie.

There is a long history of courageous and sophisticated journalism in South Africa, tracing back to the struggle against apartheid and continuing in the early decades of multiracial democracy. But until now, there has been nothing like the kind of nonpartisan fact-checking initiatives that have become so prominent — and contentious — in the United States and Europe.

“I worked in Nigeria for five years,” said Peter Cunliffe-Jones, who oversees Africa Check from his office at the AFP Foundation, the group’s sponsor and primary benefactor, in London. “Something that I became more and more frustrated with is what I call statement journalism, where a minister has said something ridiculous, opposition said something equally ridiculous and no one knows where the truth lies — and certainly the journalist doesn’t tell the reader where the truth lies between them.”

The task, both he and Mr. Rademeyer acknowledge, is more difficult in Africa than in Europe or North America, where a culture of accountability and at least a nod toward transparency is ingrained. Still, in South Africa at least, there is a pool of government data that, however imperfect, can be sifted.

“Africa Check doesn’t have the kind of traction yet that PolitiFact has in the U.S., but it is beginning to have some impact,” said Nic Dawes, the editor of The Mail and Guardian newspaper in Johannesburg. “I think it’s an excellent initiative, and I think if they develop their journalistic capacity a little bit and focus in on some of the big issues and big figures and big claims, they will be a very relevant force.”

Africa Check was set up as a nonprofit in June 2012 after the venture won some seed money in a contest sponsored by Google to improve news gathering in Africa. The Web site operates in partnership with the journalism program at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, since part of its mission is to train aspiring journalists how to check the accuracy of statements by political leaders and media outlets. Read more in the New York Times.

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