In his State of the Nation address earlier this year, South Africa’s president, Jacob Zuma, promised that a total of 98 new schools would be completed by the end of March 2013. The promise was false.
The difference fact-checking makes
In mid-2003, a group of religious and political leaders in northern Nigeria advised their followers against having their children vaccinated against polio on a claim that the vaccine would make them infertile.
The immunisation drive was part of a Western-led plot to reduce the population in the Muslim world, they alleged. Tests on the vaccines showed the claims were baseless, and those who spread the claim unchallenged would later withdraw it. But by then, the damage had already been done.
Polio, which was on the retreat worldwide in 2002 , surged in northern Nigeria and spread from there to a swathe of countries around West Africa and the world. And almost a decade on, the disease is still crippling people in Africa and elsewhere today.
False claims affect lives
From Rwanda to the Balkans, from the Cape to Cairo, the world has seen that unchallenged baseless assertions made in the media about rival communities can play a large part in fuelling communal violence.
These are just a few examples of why it matters that the claims made in public debate matter are checked. And it is not just us who say so.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu is among our supporters
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in1984 for his part in the fight against apartheid, is one who backs the Africa Check project.
In a statement he explained the reason.
“People were created to care for one another, to share and to love. However, proximity to political and economic power sometimes leads to personal avarice and consumptiveness.
“Holding the powerful to account through public scrutiny is the world’s best defence,” he said.
Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan is another backer
Another prominent supporter makes a similar point about the importance for democracy of scrutinising what leaders say.
“For democracies to function properly, for people to make informed decisions about their lives, the claims made in the public domain must be held up to scrutiny and their veracity checked openly and impartially,” former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said.
And, as another winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and the foremost diplomatic figure on the continent, he declared: “I salute the work of Africa Check, as an important initiative engaging with journalists and citizens across the continent to raise the level of public debate.”
On the same theme, Africa’s first Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Dele Olojede told us fact-checking is a vital journalistic role, aimed at increasing the accountability of those in all areas of public life. “Let’s get on with it!” he said.
And Mo Ibrahim Foundation director of communications Eric Chinje, who is also an Africa Check board member, explained why he believed the project would help media across the continent by providing a source of reliable reference material and tips and advice on how to check claims before reporting them.
“Public mistrust of the media message has often provided political leaders with a strong weapon with which to coerce journalists and bash the media. While efforts to address this problem have generally focused on issues of capacity, funding and access, little thought has been given to need to make available to journalists a ready source of reference and background information. I am sure the project will begin to address this in a meaningful way,” he said.
There is a lot of work to do.