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[email protected]: Over coffee, the seed of an African fact-checking network

The idea was discussed in a Paris coffee shop – but met resistance for being too ambitious. Ten years later, Africa Check has reached and succeeded those ambitions.

One of my most important meetings in a 33-year career with Agence France-Presse took place over coffee. It was Paris, 2011, and I was meeting my colleague and friend Peter Cunliffe-Jones.

I was then the director of the AFP Foundation, set up four years earlier to offer training to journalists in developing countries. Its focus was ethical reporting. 

Google had invited submissions for a competition for innovative projects in journalism. It gave almost no information to potential candidates. It said only that the prize money would be US$2.7 million, but it did not say how the sum would be divided.

I invited half a dozen colleagues to a meeting in Paris to come up with ideas. One was an expert in social media, another knew a lot about the internet, and a third was savvy about media law. 

Peter was working in AFP’s London bureau, running the agency’s English-language online service. He turned up with a tailor-made proposal in his pocket: that Google fund the creation of a fact-checking website based in Africa.

In those days, few people had heard of fact-checking. There were about half a dozen verification sites in the world, most of them in Europe or the United States, with one in Argentina and another in India.

As Peter unfolded his proposal, our colleagues sat and shook their heads. Fact-checking was not the role of a news agency, one said. Another asked: What if some African government did not like what we were doing and sued us for libel? Did we have the resources to create a website? What about AFP’s reputation if we got this wrong? No one supported the idea.

Peter and I crossed the street to continue the discussion in a cafe. His plan was that the new website would be launched by AFP but operate independently of the agency. It would be run and edited in Africa by Africans. This was important in itself. But it would also insulate AFP from the pushback management feared. 

Proposal 'too ambitious' 

He convinced me. A few days later we submitted a proposal to Google. We wanted to do this at a continental scale – across Africa. With no guidelines to help us, we decided to ask for 15% of the total prize money, or $405,000, to set up and run the website over two years in four countries.

Two months later our proposal was rejected. It was too ambitious. Google representatives in London said they liked the idea. But we should re-submit it to the competition organisers, the Vienna-based International Press Institute (IPI), with a lower budget. 

Peter redrafted the proposal to cover only South Africa instead of four countries, and to work only in English, excluding French. We cut the budget to $70,000. AFP would cover Peter’s salary to manage the project and all the funds would be to support the project. At our second attempt, the IPI gave us the green light – for $58,000. 

The work had barely begun. Building the website would swallow most of the money. How were we going to set up an office and hire staff in Johannesburg?

Fortunately, on a previous visit to South Africa, I had met Anton Harber, professor of journalism at Wits University. He was enthusiastic and Wits generously gave us office space for the tiny team Peter had recruited.

Thanks to our first editors, Ruth Becker and Julian Rademeyer, Africa Check quickly acquired a reputation for honest, rigorous and impartial work. One of our proudest moments was when the spokesperson for the ANC told a news conference: “With Africa Check looking over my shoulder, I have to watch my words now.”

Peter meanwhile discovered an extraordinary talent for fund-raising. This ensured our survival in the first years.

(Read more about Ten years of Africa Check: a brief history)

Robert Holloway is the now-retired founding director of the AFP Foundation, the not-for-profit media development arm of the international news agency AFP, and a former trustee of Africa Check.

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