Vinayak Bhardwaj My top 3 for 2016: Activist ‘facts’, press freedom truths & a complex Clinton claim

Great fact-checks puncture myths with rigour, but also in a way that reshapes the public debate by focusing on the true scale of a particular issue, argues our head of health and information service, Vinayak Bhardwaj. He presents his three “favourites” from 2016.

Fact and fiction have been locked in a perilous battle throughout 2016, one that is perhaps only just beginning.

As fact-checkers, however, some truths enjoyed the last word. Here are my three “favourite” ones from 2016.

A great fact-check is, in my view, like a sharp legal argument. It punctures myths with rigour, but also in a way that reshapes the public debate by focusing on the true scale of a particular issue.

In part it does this by getting you, the ordinary reader, to ask the question, “based on what evidence?” whenever you encounter a factual claim.

1. Do 7 million SA girls miss school every month due to lack of sanitary pads?

This “fact” culminated in the now famous protest at the International AIDS conference held in Durban where an activist interrupted a speech by the South African minister of health carrying a placard saying:“NO PADS = 7 MILLION GIRLS MISS SCHOOL!”

Yet what evidence was there for this? You’ll have to read the whole fact-check to find out but in short, very little.

The census figures on which the campaign was based were incorrectly cited. The number of school-going girls across in South Africa, from Grade R to Grade 12, was much less than 7 million. And the little statistical data that exists points to boys being more absent from school than girls.

Social justice issues matter to me. And so it was a cautionary note to scrutinise my own facts carefully, even if the cause itself is just. Maybe especially when I feel it is so.

Read the full report.

2. Buhari’s claim untrue: Journalists are being detained & harassed in Nigeria

Press freedom is intensely important as a means of holding power to account and helping shape robust public debate. More so in the light of fake news and potemkin presidents prone to saying whatever pleases them, regardless of whether what they say is true or not.  

So when the Nigerian minister of information and culture earlier this year told the Congress of the Federation of African Journalists, speaking on behalf of President Muhammadu Buhari, that the current administration had “never even contemplated the harassing, not to mention killing, of any journalist,” the truth of the statement was questioned.

Sans irony the minister went on to say, reading Buhari’s speech, “the media represents the eyes and ears of the world and attempts to silence it through harassment, arrests, detention and murder of journalists, is akin to making the world go blind and deaf”.

While it was true that no journalists had been murdered by the Nigerian authorities, numerous violations of press freedom, including arrests, assaults and detentions, were described in the fact-check.

Let it be a reminder to leaders on the continent and around the world of the African revolutionary Amilcar Cabral’s famous dictum: tell no lies, claim no easy victories.

Read the full report.

3. Did the Clinton Initiative distribute ‘watered-down’ AIDS drugs to Africa?

The US presidential election season kept fact-checkers around the world very busy. A conservative publication called Daily Caller claimed that the Clinton Health Access Initiative [by the husband of US presidential contender Hillary Clinton], was delivering “watered down” AIDS drugs to sub-Saharan Africa.

The fact-check, by our counterpart in the US, Politifact, digs deep into the claim, ultimately debunking it. The drugs were scrupulously tested and found to be safe almost everywhere, including in South Africa.

It’s a sweeping investigation that also digs into a very complex topic with remarkable simplicity and, while also being a great fact-check, is highly enjoyable journalism.

Read the full report.

Edited by Anim van Wyk

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